Al Jazeera America is dedicated to amplifying the voices of the voiceless and speaking truth to power. We aimed to do the same during the 2014 midterm elections. The stories we are submitting exemplify our mission-driven journalism and excellence in digital storytelling — from unearthing hidden data that shows the disenfranchisement of minority voters; to personalizing election stories through geolocation; to having an impact on communities large and small.
In “Jim Crow Returns,’’ a two-part series for Al Jazeera America, Greg Palast exposes the inner workings of Interstate Crosscheck, a computer program meant to eliminate electoral fraud by using identifiers such as birth date and Social Security number to detect people who illegally voted twice in the same election in two different states.
What he found: the 7-million-strong list, used to purge tens of thousands of double voters, is peppered with mismatches, vastly over-represents minorities and is a compendium of common names. Despite prior coverage, before Palast, no one had seen the lists or made the link between double voters and race. A black, Hispanic or Asian voter was 67 percent more likely to have one of the 1,000 most common names in America. A full 26 percent of names had a middle name/initial mismatch; voters were matched just by first and last name.
It took six months of digging to get the lists of 2.1 million for three states (Georgia, Virginia and Washington) — which yielded nearly a third of the national list. Several hundred calls, numerous visits to officials in North Carolina and Georgia and the identification of insiders who disapproved of the Crosscheck purge followed. Then came the difficult work of locating an actual “double voter,” and the realization that the double voting accusation wasn’t random: many of the people in Raleigh lived in poor East Durham neighborhoods.
To make this newly unearthed data set more accessible to the public, we created an interactive search that allowed readers to look up their names for a match among the Virginia and Georgia lists.
Legal advocates Asian Americans Advancing Justice, NAACP Legal Defense and others are preparing for legal action based on the stories; Color of Change will launch a national campaign to stop states from adopting Crosscheck and target Crosscheck states to stop their participation.
“Who’s really running Washington?” is an interactive video that explains the influence of money in politics. It explores how money has become an important, if not decisive, factor in political races; how much time fundraising takes up in a politician’s life; and what our role is in the political economy.
To bring this issue closer to our audiences we wanted to personalize it, hoping that people would care more about the subject if they could see a video with information about their representative and senators and how much money they have spent on their political campaigns.
To personalize the video, we used a Knight-funded, open-sourced platform, Data Docs, to dynamically generate information on the screen that would otherwise have to be baked into the video. The data we used came straight from the Sunlight Foundation through their API. This combination of HTML and video allowed us to make an interactive experience that serves up information relevant to each viewer and, additionally, also uses data that is always up-to-date and relates the story to the viewer’s ‘here and now.’
Our team at Al Jazeera also wanted to make sure we go into the communities that most national media neglect during their election coverage. Two such examples are our election stories about voter franchise among Native American voters and among poor voters. Both these stories are tapping into niche communities that Al Jazeera has been proactively engaging through our coverage and activities since we launched in 2013.
Throughout the reporting for one of our stories about access to voting among the poor in Indiana, our reporters used their 1000-person-strong Facebook community to solicit feedback on what kinds of stories they should cover, and to spread media coverage — our own and that of others — about voter rights issues that affected the poor. We made sure to distribute our stories through text messages and printouts to our sources in Indiana, too.
Indiana was the first state to implement voter ID laws, regulations that largely affect the poor, elderly communities and students. After publication of the Indiana story, a resident at the low-income wing of a retirement community informed us via email that one of the profiled senior citizens, 83-year-old Ruby Ramer, was able to vote without her ID. According to the resident, the community’s management asked that the senior citizens of the community be exempt from the ID law after we published our story.
For one of our stories, we looked how U.S. voting machines were reaching the end of their operational life spans, jurisdictions often lack the funds to replace them, and those with funds find market offerings limited because several constraints have made manufacturing new machines difficult. These problems could translate into hours-long waits, lost votes and errors in election results.
To tell this story in a more relatable way, we allowed viewers to search their own county and see whether the technology they used to vote was outdated.
We believe that this selection of stories shows our dedication to our journalistic mission applied to a major news event. We believe that the way in which we covered the story — through data, interactives, videos and community engagement — reflects ONA’s values as well.