The Blur of The Media

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

I’ve lived a quiet academic life for the most part, doing my research and teaching graduate students. The last week was one like no other for me.

I found myself walking the halls of TV networks and entering cramped makeup rooms at 6 am while makeup artists (who themselves had awakened at 3 am to come to work) tried to make me look human. Then, to on-air interviews that lasted between 2 and 5 minutes. First, Secretary Locke and I hit the Today Show to promote the national road tour vehicle. Then we and his security detail went to Harlem for a meeting with a set of important partners getting the word out about the 2010 Census. We had a joint meeting with Rep Rangel, and we listened to the concerns of groups about the difficulty of counting in some areas of the city.

I ended the day at NY1, a local news TV station for an interview. Then up again Tuesday morning for Fox and Friends. The studio interviews are interesting from a process perspective. Since the programs are scheduled down to the second, there are multiple staging areas to feed the “raw materials” (i.e., guests) into the production process (i.e., the interview). You have seconds to move from behind the cameras to the interview location, depending on the setup. Once your interview is over, you’re out fast. Next?

The next day, for several hours, I did satellite media interviews with local TV stations around the country – over 20 of them in a row, of 2.5 minutes each or so. I’d talk to a reporter in Paducah, followed with a 30 second break with one in Waco, then Denver, and so on. The rapid fire set of interviews was conducted in a cold sound stage in Brooklyn, in front of the national road tour vehicle. I faced a camera lens and heard in an ear microphone the voice of a news anchor at the local station. After spending my life preparing either 50 minute or 1.5 hour lectures, it was pretty difficult to give answers in bits of 15 seconds or 30 seconds, and to have a conversation that lasted between 2 minutes and 2 minutes 15 seconds.

TV makes for an odd discourse medium – a very short set of questions, with single answers, not much probing and dialogue, a penchant for pithy comments, and little shared background between speakers. My performance target was to complete the events without totally embarrassing the Census Bureau and discrediting the entire enterprise of the 2010 Census. Who knows whether I succeeded. I have to work hard to listen to make sure I detect any misunderstandings of the basic knowledge about the census. Some think that we send census forms to just some households; some think the road tour is the way people can fill out the forms (inside the vehicles); some think that the only thing the Census Bureau does is the decennial census. I have to keep my answers short or face the consequence that the interview will be over after one question (so tightly scheduled are TV news programs). After controlling the classroom lecture time, it’s tough for me to adhere to the TV rules.

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13 Responses to The Blur of The Media

  1. I have recently heard radio announcements about the upcoming Census; however, I have not yet heard whether the Census Bureau will bring its road tour to Prince George’s County, Maryland. If it did, that would be awesome. Please keep us in mind. I will continue to listen and to check the Website for information about events in my area.

  2. Sharon Postel says:

    You need to develop “sound bites” or a series of factual statements re need for census and the wealth of information available to public – funding programs, etc. But frame in terms of WIIFM – What’s in it for me – for listeners. That means identifying listeners and needs/wants/info needed. Including reasons why data are needed (even Fox wants to know why). I rely on census for info in grant writing – but your data are fantastic!!! From census to ACS and other reports. Great info and public service!

  3. Rael Jackson says:

    Stay strong Director Groves! I think it’s funny how people act like the Census is a partisan activity that was just created January 21, 2009. People act like something with the awesome task of counting EVERY RESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES was just planned after you were confirmed by the senate.
    Why do I still see press publish articles questioning the partnership of the Census and ACORN? You clearly settled that issue a month ago.
    After December 31, I hope you will be able to write a book and openly address these issues and beginning healing this house that once again seems to be divided.

  4. Diane Konrady says:

    Dear Mr Grove,
    How many U.S. residents are there? How many U.S. citizens are there? What is the status, are the make-up of non-citizens? Thank you. Diane Konrady Calais Vermont

  5. Barbara says:

    I appreciate the census bureau. The advertising budget, like the digital tv conversion, must be extraordinary for the overkill. Ads that say “now it is up to you” and “all you have to do is complete and return it” a month and half before the census form is mailed is a confusing waste. Save the USA’s money. Cut down on the media spending. Explain to expect the form in March. Pick up with more media and ads when the forms are mailed. Direct some ads to children and teach the importance and security of the response.

  6. T. Jeffeson says:

    how much of OUR money is the census bureau spending on advertising? Are we not in a recession? how much was spent on the letters telling us we would be receiving a census? This is outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars.

  7. T. Jeffeson says:

    do you only post positive comments

  8. T. Jefferson,
    We have extensive research that shows additional mailings alerting households to the arrival of the census form increase response rates by about 6 to 12 percentage points. The savings from that increase more than pay for these mailings. It costs about $85 million to print and mail the advance letter and reminder postcard. The potential increase in response rates demonstrated by our research could result in a savings of more than $500 million.

  9. boorooke says:

    wouldn’t it be cheaper and more cost effective to send follow up letters to those who don’t respond rather then send announcement letters to everyone? Hinrich’s research showed a 22% increase in response rate in his 1975 landmark paper using follow up rather than pre-emptive communication

  10. T. Jeffeson says:

    thanks for answering the question regarding the mailings. Does the census bureau have similar research showing superbowl ads, dogsled rides and road tours increase response rate by 6-12 percent?

  11. T. Jefferson,
    After the 2000 Census, we returned to the Treasury some $305 million in savings. Then Secretary of Commerce Don Evans testified in 2001 to the U.S. Senate that those savings came about from our advertising, promotion, and PR efforts encouraging households to mail back their forms, increasing response rates over the prior census for the first time in three decades.
    The total we spend on all promotion and advertising is about one dollar per person in the United States. It costs just 42 cents to mail back the form, but it costs $57 for follow up with non-responding households, many of which we must visit several times to reach someone at home.

  12. t.jefferson says:

    well I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the dogsledding and superbowl ad’s help in 2010. BTW in the dogsled picture you can see a pick up truck at the house. Was the dog sledding more cost effective or was this just a photo op?

  13. jasmal69 says:

    well can I have my dollar back?

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