Lottery stories: Journalism or commercials?

January 12, 2016 01:30

By Christopher Jones-Cruise, RTDNA Contributor

Lotteries and their occasional huge jackpots have become such a journalism trope that I worry we have lost sight of the negative aspects of lotteries and have become, instead, boosters and an important part of the lottery marketing ecosystem. We’ve fallen into the trap of doing a live shot at a store that is selling lots of lottery tickets, interviewing a few folks to learn their plans for their winnings, buying a ticket for ourselves and engaging in inane banter with anchors about how quickly we’ll clean out our desks and thinking we have done our job. But there is more to lotteries than that, and I hope we can start doing some real reporting again on this multi-billion dollar industry.
Wednesday night there will be a Powerball drawing for a jackpot of more than a billion dollars – the largest lottery jackpot in U.S. history. You and your station will cover it, even if you are in one of the few states that doesn’t participate in the Powerball. You will cover it more than your audience wants you to because it is expected and because it is easy, cheap, requires almost no heavy lifting or original thinking and even the most inexperienced reporter can handle the job.
“Lottery fever” reporting will pass for news when, in most cases, your reporting will be nothing but a thinly-veiled commercial for your state lottery agency. Your coverage will turn off the upper middle-class audience that advertisers desperately want, but you will not be able to not cover the story if only because every one of your competitors is. You will be reporting on the billion dollar Powerball jackpot during your evening newscasts, but you will be pressured to report it as if you are doing so during your morning program. You will ask yourself if this is what you went to journalism school for.
At some point in your reporting, you or someone else at your station will tell your audience that the country/your state/your community “is in a Powerball frenzy” and that “everyone is picking up a ticket or two.” But, much like most other sweeping pronouncements (close-knit community; the nation is in mourning; everybody sees; nobody wants; there’s no doubt that; a community waits to see…) this will not be true. While the publicity, and the prospect of winning a billion dollars or more will surely broaden the demographic of ticket-buyers, the fact is the overwhelming majority of your audience (more than 95% according to one estimate) will not be buying a lottery ticket, having concluded long ago that it is a sucker’s bet. And they will be wondering why you aren’t reporting that.
The ones who get suckered the most into buying a lottery ticket are those who can least afford it. Regular lottery players are typically poor or lower-class. As The Atlantic reported:
“…it’s the poor who are really losing. The poorest third of households buy half of all lotto tickets, according to a Duke University study in the 1980s, in part because lotteries are advertised most aggressively in poorer neighborhoods. A North Carolina report from NC Policy Watch found that the people living in the poorest counties buy the most tickets. ‘Out of the 20 counties with poverty rates higher than 20 percent, 18 had lottery sales topping the statewide average of $200 per adult,’ the North Carolina Justice Center reported.”

There is a lot to report when it comes to lotteries, and a lot of questions that have generally gone unanswered, if only because few reporters have ever asked them. They include:
  • How is your state lottery agency staffed and paid? What is its budget?
  • How does it market, and what is its marketing budget? Where does it spend its money? Does it target low-income households? (An FOIA request should produce this information.)
  • Where does the state’s share of the money go and what does it buy? Is it going where the governor and legislature promised it would when the lottery first came into being?
  • Why do many of the people who play it not consider it gambling? Is it because the lottery is marketed as a fun game rather than a game of chance?
There are people in your state who are anti-lottery. Don’t they deserve to be heard? There are anti-lottery/anti-gambling groups in almost every state; a quick Google search can connect you to them. Their voices should be in your report.
A mathematics or statistics professor at a local university can diagram out for you the infinitesimally small chance of winning the lottery. A financial advisor can talk about what the money a lottery player wastes could do if invested over a ten or 20-year period. Local clergy can talk about the moral and spiritual damage done by the lottery. And anti-lottery legislators can talk about how the state depends on lottery proceeds to an unhealthy degree.
In 2014, more than $70 billion was spent on lottery tickets in the United States; that’s a lot of money. Where is it going? Who is spending the money? What is their motivation? (One report estimates that “54% of lottery sales come from only 5% of players -- roughly 2.5% of U.S. adults.” A lottery group says “about 20 percent of players account for 70 percent of sales, so the typical player spends some $1,400 a year.”)
Here are a few resources that will help you report more objectively about lotteries (just telling your audience that the chances of winning are 1 in 292 million or some such isn’t a strong enough counterweight -- its simply regurgitating a statistic; that’s not reporting).
  There is a real cost to lotteries, and your audience deserves to know that cost. You can get some facts at the website of the North American Association of State & Provincial Lotteries (NASPL) at
In your reporting you will be inclined to help your audience understand how much a billion dollars really is and what it will buy. But it is almost impossible to understand a billion anything, so it is almost certainly a waste of time trying. “If you win, you can buy all the rum shops in Barbados, or 200 Boeing 777s, or three presidential candidates…” and on and on. This isn’t helpful. And it is silly.
You might think that by telling your audience that the chance of winning is the same as being hit by lightning while you are drowning or of being eaten by an alligator. Again, this isn’t helpful and doesn’t really resonate with the audience. On top of that, it makes you look slightly foolish.
Especially if you are doing a live shot (and please don’t use the term “live shot” on the air. Ever.), you will be inclined to buy a ticket. Don’t. You are an observer, not a participant.
If you do buy a ticket, you will be inclined to tell your audience what you would do with the money if you won the jackpot. Don’t. They don’t care. And it’s hardly possible you will say anything original anyway: buy a house, buy a car, travel, help family and friends, give some money to charity/church, pay off debts, go on a long Caribbean vacation, blah blah blah. You think your audience hasn’t heard that many times before?
And don’t imply that if you win you will never be heard from again. You’re saying you don’t like your job and you are only doing it because you need the money.
The next day don’t say that it is obvious you didn’t win the lottery because you came to work. This means you hate your job, you’re doing it only for the money and you have no passion for journalism. Is that really the message you want to be sending?
Much of what is seen and heard on local radio and TV comes from the minds of 20- and 30-somethings who are repeating what they heard on local stations when they were growing up. So it is, by definition, derivative, not to mention cliché, cringe-inducing, unoriginal, off-putting and unfunny. Reporting on the lottery is an opportunity to show that you are different from every other reporter in a small market looking to claw her or his way up to the network. Include on your demo reel a report on the lottery that is different from the standard tripe and you will stand out; you will be someone a news director remembers.
Ultimately, we are journalists, or at least we’re supposed to be, so we should act like journalists. We shouldn’t be acting as an extension of the marketing department of our state’s lottery agency. There is a story to tell about lotteries, and we owe it to our audience to tell that story. Doing a live shot from a local store that is selling a lot of lottery tickets, asking people in line what they would do with the money if they won the jackpot and bantering with the anchor about what you would each do with the winnings isn’t telling the whole story. Not even close.
Christopher Jones-Cruise is a reporter at the Voice of America's Learning English branch in Washington, DC. His views are his own.