During a CNN story the other day about the Kentucky primary, the reporters visited the poorest county in the state and asked about the Obama-Clinton battle, about McCain, about what life is like in the poorest county in the state. Pretty lousy, from what I could tell, and people there doubt it'll get any better no matter who is elected.
In a diner they asked a lady about Hillary Clinton. She snorted, then said (more or less): "It's in the Bible, a woman's place is in the home."
What people know is more than facts and figures. This woman knows. The wisdom of literally interpreting scripture is not my interest, but her knowing about Clinton does touch on how people make sense of the world. I'm more curious about viewers who caught that bit, because that ended the CNN segment. Many would see this and make a snap judgment about the woman (dumb, intelligent, sees the truth, sees nothing at all).
The power of a person selected to represent a county or city or neighborhood, that carries enormous influence on how viewers or readers make judgments. Exemplars, they're sometimes called in social psych. My first editor called them little person, big picture approaches to storytelling. In the lede of a story, we often see the poor little person approach and then a bridge to the big picture (health, economy, etc.). It all comes down to the same thing, that the powerful anecdote can have great influence on viewers and readers.
But, sometimes, not the way you think.
A set of experiments in the 70s looked at a series of TV stories about the lousy economy that either began (or didn't begin) with the poor little person. Politicians in office hate the poor little person lede, but curiously the research found viewers blamed the poor little person, not the system, for their struggles. Wow.
So we return to our Lady of the Diner. She knows about Clinton. The viewers now know about her. What people know, then, is a lot more complex than we sometimes think, all mixed up as it is in our own predispositions, the way journalists tell stories, the powerful anecdotes used.
When it comes down to Obama and McCain, as if likely will, then how journalists frame and tell their stories will say a great deal about what people know about these two men. And that, to some degree, helps settle the election.