Local media need to do a better job with mail-in vote stories

Story of discarded mail bag in New Jersey is just one example

The political stakes of mail-in voting are very high this year, as President Donald Trump and his allies are seeking to discredit absentee ballots cast during the coronavirus pandemic — and spreading a variety of falsehoods in order to do so.

In addition, Attorney General Bill Barr’s Justice Department has now altered a longstanding policy against making election-related announcements in the run-up to the actual vote — while Barr himself is publicly lying about the reliability and safety of absentee voting in an effort to steer public perceptions.

So with that in mind, local media need to do a better job at how they report stories that mention ballots. A recent example springs from a mail carrier in New Jersey who has been accused of discarding a bag from his daily rounds into a dumpster. The crime that does not appear to actually be connected to the election, but some ballots were in the discarded bag.

And on top of that, the mail was headed for local residents in some heavily Democratic towns — so to the degree that this apparent shirking of official duties would affect the election, it would be to suppress a number of votes for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. (New Jersey is already expected to vote for Biden on the whole.)

An example of a bad headline comes from NJ.com, the website for the Star-Ledger: “Postal worker in N.J. faces charges for dumping bundles of mail, including nearly 100 election ballots.” A better example comes from NorthJersey.com, website of the Bergen Record: “Postal worker charged after 2,000 pieces of mail, including NJ ballots, found in dumpsters.”

Including the overall number of trashed pieces of mail will make clear that the postal worker’s alleged crime was dumping a large amount of mail — in which some ballots happened to make up a small percentage. With that in mind, it seems likely this alleged crime would not have been expressly connected to the election.

The NBC-owned station in the New York media market gave an overly simplistic headline, “USPS Worker in NJ Arrested for Allegedly Dumping Mail, Including Election Ballots.” But to its credit, the station included a key fact in its report: The mail load was meant for delivery in Orange and West Orange — a heavily Democratic area to begin with, where a significant percentage of the ballots would have thus been filled out for Biden if the voters could receive them.

Other reports did mention that Orange and West Orange were the destination route for the mail, but they did not explain the Democratic leanings of those areas.

The other local network stations also gave simplistic headlines, while not explaining that the destinations for the included ballots were heavily Democratic areas. And CBS and Fox both made the crime seem particularly election-related:

CBS: “Federal Prosecutors: New Jersey Postal Employee Throws Away Nearly 100 Ballots For Upcoming Election”

Fox: “NJ postal worker accused of throwing away election ballots”

ABC: “Mail carrier accused of dumping mail, including ballots sent to NJ residents”

The stations in New York City are all directly owned and operated by their parent networks, for this major market.

For another example of how this reporting can go wrong, right-wing media vastly spread a story that mail-in votes were supposedly found discarded in a ditch in Wisconsin — only for it to turn out that the discarded mail did not include ballots after all.