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Making Chicken Broth

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Journalism is like making chicken broth. As a reporter, you take our notebook full of interviews, a mound of clips and printouts and proceed boil these thousands of words into an 800-word story.  It's a reductive exercise. 

The ability to take a complicated world and make it understandable is one of journalism's great strengths.  Of course, it is also its weakness.Thumbnail image for Patchwork Nation.jpg The line between simple and simplistic is highly permeable.  In telling both sides of the story, we fail to recognize that stories can sometimes have three, four, five or more sides. We demand squares, when real-life situations can resemble hexahedrons or octagons.

Take the reduction of America into Red States and Blue States as an example of oversimplification. In reality, America is more like a paisley tie than the bifurcated image on the network maps

So, let's give three cheers to a journalist and a political scientist who are working hard to get us - the public and the media - to take at least one step back and look at the nation with new eyes,

Journalist Dante Chinni and political geographer James Gimpel are co-authors of Patchwork Nation, a book that uses demographic data to present a new picture of that red vs. blue graphic - and state of mind. To see an example, go here.

Chinni, a reporter who works with PBS and the Christian Science Monitor, is the first to admit that their book is a reductive exercise, too. Chinni and Gimpel have take the nation's 3,141 counties and broken them down into a dozen distinct types.

In Patchwork Nation, for instance, Philadelphia becomes an Industrial Metropolis (one of 41 in America), while the Philly suburbs are four of the 286 Monied Burbs laid out in the book. Pennsylvania has a lot of Empty Nest counties, where the population trends older; also a number of Tractor Country counties, where the population is sparse and rural.

But, you catch drift.

Chinni and Gimpel will be in town tomorrow (Thursday, Nov. 11) to talk about their book as part of the First Person Arts Festivals. (See below for details).

My interview with Chinni brought up memories of frustration in my years as a political reporter: the tendency to oversimplify and have the label stick - ala James Carville's famous observation that Pennsylvania is "Philadelphia one on side, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in between."  That wasn't true then and it is not true now.

The truth is more complex, but Carville's quote satisfies our desire to make that complexity understandable. The ability to come up with a good line trumps reality.

Chinni and Gimpel are on a mission to get us out of that rut.

"The biggest thing I want people to take away is to understand the place where you don't live," he said. "We have to get beyond the clich├ęs. People not only live in a different place than you, but they live in a different reality. Even if you don't agree with them, understanding them is critical. It is about the lives they live."

For instance, it is hard for us in the big city to understand the lure of Sarah Palin. But, if you read about Tractor Country and Boom Towns and Evangelical Epicenters in the book you can get a sense of why people do embrace her politics.

Chinni and Gimpel settled on counties being their guide because that's where the data is.

They toyed with the idea of going deeper down - to cluster by the zip code - but realized that would be too much.  It's one thing to slice the nation by 3,000-plus counties; another to slice it by 40,000-plus zip codes.

Chinni's hope is that political reporters will take the book to heart and use it as a tool to go report on America. He's tired of everyone using Peoria, Ill. as the prototype of the entire USA.

 All he is really asking the media to do is play catch-up with retail chains. Wal-Mart and Starbucks, to name just two, have been using county- abd zip-code level demographic data for years to figure out where to locate their stores.

The marketing experts at these firms would laugh at the Red-Blue distinction the media seems to demand.  They've known for years that ours truly is a patchwork nation.

 

Chinni and Gimpel will speak about their book at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday (Nov. 11) at The Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Tickets are $15 and are available by calling 267-402-2055 or online at this web site .

 

-- TF

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