The path to presidential victory runs directly through Pennsylvania. The state holds 20 electoral votes and Donald Trump’s 2016 win was decided by less than 50,000 votes, or less than one percentage point.
Polls show it will be a close race again in 2020. To that end, over the next year WESA is following four voters at the center of this election about the big issues that will sway their decision at the ballot box.
By no means do these four voters speak for the entirety of Western Pennsylvania, but they do broadly represent key voting groups here, and the media these voters consume has the power to inform how they view everything that happens until the election.
Stumbling Upon Disinformation
“I was reading about this and was just absolutely in shock,” said Henze, 53, of Jefferson Hills. She was a Democrat for decades before supporting Trump in 2016.
Henze is talking about a story a friend of hers shared on Facebook about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s son Paul Pelosi Jr.’s supposed ties to Ukraine. I hadn’t heard about the story, and asked her to see who reported it.
“One American [sic] Network,” she said, after finding the video her friend shared. “And these are the things that nobody wants us to know.”
I hadn’t heard of that network either, so we looked it up. Henze was surprised as she read the Google results.
“One American [sic] Network, also referred to as One America News is a Twitter account and has a history of – oh woah – tweeting falsehoods and conspiracy theories,” she read.
The Pelosi story from One America News Network, a small pro-Trump cable channel, has been debunked. In 2020, there are news sources like One America News to reflect every political opinion, and voter misinformation is a broad problem.
Henze, for example, mostly watches Fox News, and while she likes that the network occasionally brings on Democrats, research from the University of Maryland suggests more time watching Fox is connected to a more exposure to misinformation.
Different News Feeds, Different Worlds
Like Henze, Republican Ed Cwiklinski trusts his ability to see through media bias. He’s 46, works in cyber security and lives in Bethel Park. He voted for Trump, but has voted for some local Democrats. Ed watches Fox too, and listens to Rush Limbaugh.
“I listen to Rush Limbaugh because he agrees with me,” Cwiklinski said. “He has the same point of view that I have – that we both love this country, that it’s the best thing that ever is. I do see the other side, I just don’t listen to it as much.”
Which Cwiklinski doesn’t see as a problem. Everyone’s news feeds will look different because everyone is different.
“I think they’re going to find the news that reflects what they believe,” he said.
To some extent, progressive Savannah Henry agreed.
“You believe what you believe,” said the University of Pittsburgh sophomore. “So if you’re following people on Twitter who are people you agree with, you might not point out their fake news within your own circle.”
Henry reads the New York Times through her student subscription at Pitt, and watches CNN with her family when she goes home to Erie. She also gets news from Twitter, where she follows news sources, political activists, celebrities and others who are in line with her progressive views.
For Henry, she also goes to Twitter for analysis and explanation of current events, in addition to reading the latest headlines.
“They’ll break it down in a long thread, which I think is interesting,” she said. “I guess it just shows my age and how I tend to read, but it’s easier to read a thread than an article.”
Who Should Fact Check Who
“I get my news from a lot of different sources,” said Democrat Linda Bishop, 68, of Mars. “The sources I tend to look at are right there in the high factual content category. They may lean slightly left, but they’re not like way over in the ultra left, hyper-partisan left category.”
After retiring from international banking, Bishop spends hours a day following sources like NPR, the Washington Post and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She’s also a big fan of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. But she’s worried about how the siloed media landscape has created different versions of reality.
“I’m old enough to have lived through like three impeachments,” she said. “When I look back on the Nixon [impeachment], and the news coverage and so on, there wasn’t a Fox News and there wasn’t an MSNBC, there was just the news.”
Bishop doesn’t have a solution, but she does think everyone should be skeptical of disinformation.
“We have to question the things that we read, that we hear that we see,” she said. “We have to do that in order to be good citizens.”
Republican Mary Henze is on disability and has plenty of time to keep up with current events. To that end, she has been trying to do her part ever since finding out about One America News.
“I went back to my Facebook and deleted all of those sources because I didn’t want to be misled,” she said.
Democrat Savannah Henry agrees that disinformation is a problem. But she said it’s unfair to expect busy students like her, or people working multiple jobs to thoroughly vet every story they read.
“To put the responsibility on me to seek out every source I read, and make sure my information is from a 100% certified source...I guess it just puts a lot on the person,” she said.
Especially when there are so many sources out there.
WESA's Split Ticket series looks at how key issues on the campaign trail resonate locally. Every month until the presidential election in November, we are checking in with four people who represent important voting blocs in western Pennsylvania, though they by no means represent the beliefs of everyone in the region.