2024 Election, Cory Gaines, Exclusives, Politics, Uncategorized

Gaines: ‘Voter Voices’ project bumps up against liberal media bubble

When I first read about the Voter Voices project, where Colorado news outlets tailor their coverage to what voters want to know, my first thought was to wonder just whose voices would be heard.  After all, the outlets I saw touting this project are tilted so far to the left I marvel at how they stay upright.  The audience demographics of some of these outlets may not support a major focus on concerns of more conservative Coloradans, but if you’re going to advertise coverage which reflects voters’ interests, will all voters actually have at least some voice, or will this project devolve into a closed feedback loop, with left-leaning reporters reflecting back to left-leaning audiences the things they both care about?

A deeper look at the group running things, the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), doesn’t inspire much faith.  Its funders are a roster of left-leaning, socially-progressive charitable organizations.  They proclaim that their funding does not dictate their content, but I know how grants work.  I’ve also been around long enough to know that money always has strings attached.  Even if it’s not a crass pay-for-play deal, it would be foolish to ignore the incentive structures here.

Here’s what I’ve been able to learn about how this project works: If you take the survey, your answers are put into a searchable (by, say, political orientation, gender, or zip code) spreadsheet by COLab, which in turn shares it with the news outlets that signed on to the project.  Any outlet can see the entirety of the spreadsheet, but results are also broken down by tabs specific to news sources.  For example, when I took the survey, my results became available to media along the Front Range, but they’re also separated into a tab specifically for my local newspaper, The Sterling Journal Advocate.

Acknowledging limits

The idea, according to what Tina Griego of COLab told me, is that local outlets can look up their local reader’s thoughts and then adapt their coverage.  That is, COLab is pushing out this data to the partner news outlets without interpretation or massaging.  The news outlets, using this data as a tool, are ultimately responsible for what they ask or don’t ask.

From the beginning the limitations are obvious.  For one, this is (as COLab readily and publicly admits) not a representative sample of Coloradans’ views.  It can’t be, as people self-select into the survey after having learned about it in whatever participating news outlet they happened to have read.  Additionally, the format of the survey itself necessarily limits the kinds of things that people could ask.  There is a free response portion you could fill in, but the remainder of the questions are multiple choice, and with over 5000 responses (as of June 11), there is no way to wrangle that many disparate opinions into a cohesive whole.

Fair enough.  There are limitations.  In speaking to Ms. Griego, this is not something that COLab is hiding or pretending to hide.  They are forthright about their limitations and actively working to recruit a more representative group into their survey.

Speaking of which, this is where you should step in.  Go do the survey.  Whatever your thoughts about whether or not you’ll be listened to, it’s not a good look to complain about not being heard if you don’t try to speak up.

The bias confirmation game

It’s natural to wonder what happens once the data leaves COLab’s hands.  I’d like to give you an answer, but (and this is not due to a lack of effort on my part) I can’t.  My arms are sore from reaching out to my own local paper, as well as reporters at Colorado Public Radio (CPR) and The Colorado Sun, in both emails and on social media.  No responses of note have come in.

The only avenue open to me is therefore to look at the results that the local outlets are publishing.  For example, COLab’s summary of results clearly shows that  concerns about personal liberty ranked strongly among conservatives and decently among independents.  Take a look through at what the Colorado Sun put out for the 3rd Congressional District, a pretty solidly-conservative area.  You don’t see much in the way of candidates being asked about their take on individual liberties and government overreach.  You will see, however, the same hackneyed questions about who won the 2020 election.

COLab’s project is not perfect.  They’ve not sold it as such.  I credit them for that.  I credit them, too, for being open and wanting to improve, but the bigger question is what patterns and narratives will be laid on top of the raw survey data. When it comes to humans, the patterns we put on data guide what we see in it, and what we don’t.

I cannot help but think that this effort, however well intentioned, already teeters under the weight of the audience demographics and interests/incentives of the individual news outlets and those at COLab.  Said another way, I have doubts about whether this survey will prove a sharp enough tool to pierce the thick hide of the liberal bubble surrounding both the news outlets and their mainly liberal audiences.  I think we’ll largely see more of the same coverage we have seen up til now, it’ll just carry the (partly) false imprimatur of being your voice doing the asking.

Cory Gaines is a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.  He lives in Sterling on Colorado’s Eastern Plains and also writes at the Colorado Accountability Project substack.


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