Listening to America with HuffPost

Hattaway’s team of linguists analyzed over 1,700 interviews to map the conversation in America today. A new tool lets you explore it for yourself.

An American flag flies over Charleston, West Virginia, one of the 25 cities HuffPost journalists visited on their Listen to America tour. Credit: Getty Images.

By Pete Tontillo and Lenore Cohen

Here in Washington D.C., the approaching midterm elections and attendant absurdities — from the President’s Twitter outbursts to a Virginia Congressional race involving “Bigfoot Erotica” — have taken over the conversation. Meanwhile, the issues that affect people’s everyday lives have taken a back seat. While coverage in the nation’s capital lurches between controversies, what are Americans really thinking about? Our team of linguists at Hattaway Communications recently partnered with journalists at HuffPost to find out.

In Fall 2017, the publication’s Listen to America bus tour traveled outside of the large cities that dominate national media coverage to hear from more than 1,700 people in 25 places all across the country, from Charlottesville, Virginia to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Through video interviews with people on the street and at local events co-hosted by community groups, the HuffPost team listened closely to people’s hopes and fears for themselves, their children and their communities — and the issues most important to their everyday lives.

The tour succeeded beyond their expectations, but the sheer number of voices and volume of data was daunting — over 250 hours of video, more than long enough to travel to the moon and back. To find the ideas that rose to the top, our team used an innovative linguistic analysis that examined every word spoken by the interviewees. We found that across cities, the big issues on people’s minds fell into eight categories: jobs and the economy, crime and safety, education, housing affordability, inequality, race relations, taxes and tourism.

We amassed a database of over one million words related to these categories, and used certain key words’ proximity to each other to identify themes that defined how people talked about each issue. For example, when people talked about education, they often mentioned the words “loans” and “cost” around “college,” generating a theme: college affordability.

We then selected illustrative examples of the language people used to talk about each theme. For example, Francesca from Oxford, Mississippi had this to say about the importance of affordable college in her life:

I’m a college student burdened by student loans. I think [we need to] reduce the cost of higher education in our country, making education more accessible to lower and middle-class students. Because with me, I’ve had some bouts of unemployment and my prior degree wasn’t all that helpful.

This kind of analysis provides a sophisticated understanding of the unique conversation in each place HuffPost visited, as well as the connections and recurring themes across the country. In rapidly growing Asheville, North Carolina, for instance, housing affordability is one of the most prominent concerns on people’s minds. A thriving tourism industry powers the economy, but for the last few decades, rising housing costs have been pushing the long-time residents who work service jobs farther and farther outside the city.

“There’s a huge divide between housing costs and wages,” says Emily of Asheville, North Carolina (left), speaking to HuffPost with her friend. “There are so many service industry jobs that don’t pay very well, or certainly don’t pay at a rate that’s commensurate with what housing ends up costing in a tourism-driven economy.”

Now, a new interactive digital platform puts all of these place-based insights at your fingertips. You can immerse yourself in the conversation, listening to Americans from all over the country talk about the most important issues in their lives in their own words.

According to HuffPost Executive Editor Hillary Frey, who recently appeared on Hattaway’s Achieve Great Things podcast, the most meaningful takeaway might come from what people didn’t talk about. Political news — even the national “Me Too” movement, just beginning at the time, and President Trump’s daily Twitter antics — didn’t figure into people’s minds as much as one might expect based on national media coverage.

James from Des Moines, Iowa, focused on tax reform. “We need tax reform for the middle class, for the lower class,” he said. “The wealthy class is getting along just fine and if you talk to most of them, they would say that really, the taxes aren’t hurting them.”

People’s eagerness to talk also reinforced Frey’s belief in the power of authentic listening, unconstrained by any sort of political prism. “Once they knew we weren’t steering them someplace,” she says, “they just opened up. And that was really the goal.” Our analysis confirms that for all our diversity and division, when you ask people about their hopes for themselves and their families, you start to see common threads in the way Americans talk about these big issues.

So, which issues are Americans across the country really thinking about right now? Thanks to this new platform, you can begin to explore the answers for yourself.

Pete Tontillo and Lenore Cohen are linguists at Hattaway Communications.