Media Fail – 1, Transparency – 0

How I long for the good ole days.
How I long for the good ole days.
Once upon a time I thought the media was a defender of democracy. It was a check on the power government exercised. It was a force for good that sought to keep the people connected and the politicians and bureaucracy honest.

Perhaps it was naiveté, or my fond memories of great journalists from the late 70’s through much of the 80’s and early 90’s.

I gave up any illusions of this fairy tale long ago.

That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists out there…they’re just fewer and farther between…and they’re trapped in a business environment where quantity, punch, and social media ‘engagement’ trumps a balanced account of the news.

Such is the case with this truly ignorant report from WREG that aired in July.

The web story is pretty benign, but the report that actually aired takes a Gary Vosot approach to reporting that demands you turn every fallen acorn into a “sky is falling” event.

The news item I’m referencing involves a little known report called the “Participating Voter List”, aka PVL.

What is the PVL?

The PVL is exactly what it sounds like. Its a list of people who have participated in an election. It includes your name and address, precinct information, and in primary elections, which primary ballot you chose to vote on.

Independent observers, political consultants, and campaigns use the PVL to see who’s voted, which areas are turning out more than others, and to tailor their communications to people who haven’t voted by purging the names of people who have voted from their direct communication list (mail, phone, and canvassing).

If you don’t want annoying calls, knocks, or mail, vote early and all that will stop…if the campaign is managed effectively.

Aside from primary ballot information, there is no information in the PVL that’s any more dangerous to your privacy than the information from an old school phone book, or white pages dot com.

But reporter Michael Quander’s piece makes it sound as if the very act of voting could endanger your privacy in some way.

That’s simply not the case. There are far easier and more informative ways and places to get that information than the Election Commission…though you’d never know it from his actual report.

Because of Quander’s report, the Election Commission now only sends the PVL out by request, instead of publishing it in the deep dark recesses of the Election Commission website where only people who know where it is can find it.

Why is the PVL important?

The PVL is important because it is a way to, in nearly real time, see what’s going on with an election.

The PVL was how Joe Weinberg and I found the redistricting errors that resulted in over 3000 voters receiving the wrong ballot in the August 2012 election.

At that time, the PVL was posted directly on the Election Commission’s website daily. Because of this, we were able to run our tests promptly and without waiting for a gatekeeper to open the gate for us (other than waiting for the report to be posted). This allowed both of us the ability to work, as volunteers…using our own time and getting paid nothing for our efforts, to expose one of the greatest election screw-ups in recent memory.

Had the PVL’s only been available by request, it may have taken several more days to complete our tests, causing a greater delay in resolving the problem, and potentially disenfranchising thousands of more voters in the process.

There is a small, tightly knit group of mostly volunteers, on both sides of the aisle, who pay very close attention to this report. Any delay is a huge setback because we are working on our own time, and of our own initiative.

Thanks to another barrier being placed due to unnecessary fear drummed up by this report, the next election disaster, should it occur, will take days longer to identify.

Way to go Channel 3.

Playing both sides of the privacy fence

But what is perhaps most perversely ironic is that the PVL is more safe than many of the methods WREG, and other commercial websites use to make money off of you.

Have you ever noticed that things you’ve browsed on Amazon or other online retailers regularly show up on ads at completely unrelated websites?

That monetization of “Big Data” is something every single news website in the country uses to generate revenue. It uses cookies, scripts, and your browser history to tailor ads to you, to increase their revenue.

In doing so, they’re taking advantage of your ignorance of potential privacy concerns far more than the Election Commission or any other government agency that is required by law to publish or make available information about you and yours.

A blow to good reporting

Aside from the report being…just dumb…the Election Commission’s decision to no longer post the PVL is also a blow to reporters who know what to do with the report…other than stir up unnecessary FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the minds of viewers.

In years past, experienced reporters and election observers have used the report to do good journalism in the public interest. I remember the first time I started seeing reports like this, but in particular, the work of Commercial Appeal reporter Zack McMillian back in 2010 when he was on the political beat.

He used the information in a way that challenged me to dig even deeper into the report…which ultimately led to the discoveries Dr. Weinberg and I made going public.

Journalism is supposed to both inform people, and make those who engage in it, either by profession or by hobby, better. Quander’s report doesn’t do that. It preys on the uninformed fears of people, who are already scared of the very big data his company makes money off of.

So way to go Michael Quander, and the Producers, News Directors, and other influential decision-makers at WREG Channel 3. You’ve just made it harder for people just like you to do their job. I know you’re proud.

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