Justin Peligri: Get your facts straight this election season

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

Here’s a fact: 83 percent of Americans think they aren’t getting the facts they need to be educated voters.

In a nation that seems largely devoid of substantive debate, the School of Media and Public Affairs is looking to heighten the level of political discourse with Face the Facts USA, a project that provides one fact daily for 100 days before the Nov. 6 election.

Its website has information on hot button political issues ranging from education and health care to taxes and national security.

But while Face the Facts USA is an admirable attempt to educate and invigorate an increasingly apathetic electorate, facts do not help if there is no context to give them meaning. Facts in isolation might be beneficial for people who want to try out for “Jeopardy!,” but they will not help the average voter on Election Day.

According to Face the Facts USA, which takes information from credible government and research organizations, the tax on cigarettes increased from 39 cents to $1.01 for a 20-cigarette pack from 2009.

So what? Who supports the tax hikes? Who doesn’t? What does this mean as far as raising federal revenue? What are the benefits of taxes on cigarettes? What are the drawbacks?

“I hope this project will make people a little smarter, that they find something that they haven’t known before.” Frank Sesno, SMPA director and chief executive of Face the Facts USA, told me. “So that then when they hear the political debate, or when they hear something that a candidate says, they have information to superimpose on what the candidate says.”

The project starts a conversation – and an important one, at that. But there is still a lot of work to do.

A recent HBO show, written by renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, hits on this same idea.

In an early episode of The Newsroom, character Mackenzie MacHale, who produces a television show, talks about how, when presenting the news, there is one question we must answer: “Is this information we need in the voting booth?”

Another question she poses is, “Is this information in historical context?”

I usually don’t believe everything I see on television, but the show makes a valid point.

Face the Facts USA needs to make sure its information is presented alongside some context, and it also needs to make sure that it can help people make more informed decisions. Otherwise, people are just left with a bunch of ideas swirling around in their brains.

To be fair, at the bottom of each fact’s page, there’s a section labeled “What do others say?” that links users to other websites and articles about the various issues Face the Facts USA covers. They also have a “Where do the candidates stand?” box that links to the presidential candidates’ campaign platforms. But those are by no means central focuses of the website.

Having an arsenal of facts is better than not knowing anything at all – as is the case with too many voters today.

But the initiative could include a history about the trajectory of the issues covered, or a fact-checking mechanism through which dubious statements made by the candidates could be screened, helping voters figure out which presidential hopeful most accurately aligns with their views.

“We are so filled with assertion and accusation and allegation and distorted facts,” Sesno told me, “that the public is justifiably angry.”

I share his frustrations. It is discouraging that the news is devoid of real substance. Face the Facts USA is a great start, but in a political race as important as this one, it falls short of the finish line.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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