Posted in Behind the News

An inside look at ‘Divided America’

, by Lauren Easton

Last week, AP began publishing one of its longest series in memory, “Divided America.” The reporting explores the issues driving American voters toward the decision they will make on Election Day.

AP Vice President for U.S. News Brian Carovillano detailed how the series came about and commented on some of its key findings:

Can you describe the deliberations among editors and reporters that led to an America divided as the primary story and the decision to tell this story through a long-running series called “Divided America”?On the one hand, every election year presents an opportunity to get a sense of what people are thinking and experiencing in their communities. But I think it’s fair to say that those of us who have been doing this for a long time have never seen an election year quite like this one. We started talking about this effort early in the year. And from the beginning, it seemed to demand something more comprehensive and ambitious than what we’ve done in the past. So we sent a lot of really smart journalists out to just talk to people and get a sense of what they were feeling. What they found out was not exactly what we expected. Yes, there is this sense that we are divided as a nation. But it’s not as simple as Republican/Democrat or liberal/conservative. There are so many divisions along so many lines. And that reflects the fabric of who we are as a society. A person’s identity is much more than just their race, their political party, their job. It’s all of those things, and more. You might think you know how an evangelical Christian from the South is going to vote. But what if that person is also a Hispanic millennial and a union member? People defy easy characterization. So all of that led us to the conclusion that we need much more than a story or even a series of stories. We’re planning to make this a major area of focus for several months, and that’s going to include at least two dozen stories, as well as video pieces, photo galleries, interactive features, and much more. And our goal is to attack this from as many angles as we can.How do the findings and conclusions of “Divided America” reflect the social currents underlying the mostly unanticipated popularity of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?If there’s one thing a broad swath of Americans can agree on, it’s that their government is broken. The approval numbers for various institutions are falling off the bottom of the chart. And that has created an opening for these two outsider candidates with very different messages that ultimately are playing to the same sense of dissatisfaction in the electorate. The Trump base and the Sanders base may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, politically, but what they have in common is a sense that the system is not working for them.Then overlay some pretty harsh economic realities in many parts of the country. We heard this from a lot of people: “The government keeps telling me the economy is all rosy, but I used to have a full-time job, and now I only have part-time work at a lower wage.” So we decided to look into that and found there’s a lot to that. That a lot of people have had that experience and that the data backs it up.And finally, Trump’s message has particularly resonated with a subset of this group. These folks are mostly white, they have suffered since the recession, they feel the government has failed them, and see the country’s changing demographics as part of the reason for it. For better or worse, Trump has animated those feelings in people and they are voting for him.
The Associated Press interviewed a wide range of Americans to get a sense of what they think about the nation’s greatness in the twilight of President Barack Obama’s eight years in office. (AP Photo)

What have been some of the bigger surprises in the reporting?

One of the biggest surprises has been the degree to which we are united – that is, not divided. Across all these different groups there is widespread agreement that the idea of America, as a place where you can live your life the way you want to live it, is alive and well. The importance of education, of people working together for the greater good — those are common themes we heard from people across the spectrum. Some might feel our best days are behind us; some might think they’re still in the future; and some might think we’ve never been better than we are right now. But those common feelings are out there.

How are AP’s member news organizations using this material in their local markets?

We’ve already seen a lot of member news organizations devoting significant space to the series on both their print and digital platforms. And these stories are pretty evergreen and can be used anytime, so we expect it to have a fairly long tail. What’s gratifying is not only that they’re using our content, but also using the data to show how these divisions and trends are playing out in their own communities.

In the months ahead, “Divided America” will unfold in text, video, graphics and visual and immersive interactive journalism.

You can read the first stories in the series below:

Pondering whether America’s still great

Rosy economic averages bypass many in U.S.

In Montana, neighbors at odds over refugees

Evangelicals feel alienated, anxious