In science there is something called the observer effect: The act of observing something has a direct effect on the thing being observed. The phenomenon, whatever it is, shifts and changes as a result of being watched and winds up with a different outcome than would have otherwise occurred without observation. The act of observing has impact.
This idea is not limited to science. The observer effect also applies to art, where the act of observation can transform the creative process from a subconscious act to a self-conscious one, from one where an artist feels free to produce whatever comes to mind to something where the audience’s preferences and expectations become incorporated. The end result, again, winds up different, changed.
And then there’s media, another home for the observer effect. The act of reporting a story inherently changes the story. Indeed, the observer effect is basically the point of journalism — to inform the public so they can make educated decisions about their world. Journalism has a predisposition for change; if everything is fine, if everything is running smoothly, there is no story.
Often the media microscope has tremendous value. Reporting on Watergate, for example, resulted in Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Reporting on the Iraq War stripped away the narrative that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. The process can be messy, but the end result is often a better-informed public.
The observer effect, however, is not always desirable. The intensity of a microscope does not always add value. Sometimes, instead of enhancing reality, magnification only serves to sear the phenomena like an ant caught in the sun.
Observe the New Hampshire Primary. Yesterday marked its close. Hopefully you voted, cast your ballot, selected someone who you think would serve America well as its commander in chief. But more than that, hopefully that selection was made unselfconsciously, based on handshakes and face-to-face conversations, not news reporting. I work in media, but yesterday, and leading up to yesterday, I hope you turned off the TV.
The New Hampshire Primary has become the experimental chimpanzee for the presidential campaign — poked and prodded and flipped over, examined from every angle. For the past six months it’s been combed over and pushed and rubbed on all sides like a genie in a bottle capable of laying down predictions about Trump, Clinton, Sanders and Cruz. It has been put under the microscope, watched and commented on and reviewed ad nauseam.
The scrutiny has gotten so intense that media are now reporting on each other. If New Hampshire is the chimpanzee, then we, its local media, are its fleas, and even its fleas have fleas. The local stories are enough for us, but for the national news organizations one more campaign stop in a small New Hampshire town is not a story. So what do they do? They report on the local newspaper. Just this week The Conway Daily Sun refrigerator was featured on both the BBC and MSNBC.
At first glance, the national attention is complimentary, flattering even. A column I wrote a few months ago was cited in a New York Times editorial this week. It also appeared on Rachel Maddow’s TV show. The Huffington Post came to interview me for a documentary series. Our publisher was interviewed by the BBC. Another Sun story landed on CNN.
But our point was never to be the story. It is not the story. The story is the future leader of our country. But in the need for 24-hour news, our fridge becomes news once town hall meetings turn boring.
Enter the observer effect. When our newspaper is getting multiple stories about it on national and international networks, it’s clear we’ve reached a saturation point. And it isn’t just us, but all of New Hampshire is flooded. Every four years, New Hampshire becomes the focal point for all things presidential, but today the media landscape has broadened and deepened. Websites are putting out documentaries. Television networks are hosting blogs. Newspapers are blanketing Twitter. Reporters are everywhere, rivaling voters. The authenticity is fading, and through no fault of New Hampshirites. The national media come to town during one of the most important times in our democratic process, and the stories start pinging back and forth like a closet full of hummingbirds. Voters almost have to get out of the way.
It’s only once you are caught in the media net, once you become part of the story, that you realize just how small and incestuous the national conversation on politics is. Watching pieces about The Conway Daily Sun bounce their way around across the Internet and from one major news source to another feels like being at Wimbledon and paying more attention to the vendor sales than the tennis match.
Voters get it worse. They see more questions, analysis and intrusions than I do as a reporter. At every turn they are pushed to reveal their preferences, a camera stuck in their face, a shining spotlight.
This is the modern New Hampshire Primary, no longer just a conversation with the men and women looking to run our country, but a constant examination. It begins as soon as the first candidates arrive, and it continued until yesterday. Until today even.
What does all this scrutiny, all this inquiry, do to the process? What is the effect of New Hampshire becoming the political reality TV show for the country, for the world? How does that affect our choices?
The problem with the observer effect is there is no control group, no way of knowing what that scrutiny does. But if the New Hampshire voter is the artist, it’s hard to imagine an unselfconscious painting at this point.
But maybe the artist turned off the TV long ago. Hopefully our voters aren’t reading this column.
Erik Eisele is a reporter for The Conway Daily Sun.