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About the Author
Jim Pumarlo was the editor of Red Wing Republican Eagle for 20 years, and is the author of Bad News and Good Judgment. He frequently speaks to journalism groups about election coverage and ethical issues for small-town newspapers. He lives in Red Wing, Minnesota.
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Votes and Quotes
A Guide to Outstanding Election Campain Coverage
By Jim Pumarlo
Marion Street PressCopyright © 2007 Jim Pumarlo
All rights reserved.
Setting the stage
Consider these common situations:
* An individual comes into your office, announcing her candidacy for elective office. This person is new to politics, and not well known in the community.
* A candidate says the stories profiling his campaign are biased. But he doesn't cite any articles, just an editorial you wrote about the campaign.
* A campaign manager charges that letters supporting her candidate are given inferior display compared with letters endorsing other candidates.
* A candidate asks you to send a photographer when he opens his new campaign office. And when he visits the local auto parts factory. And when he visits a day-care center to buss the children. And when he goes fishing with the regular guys.
* A well-oiled organization is pushing voters to "Vote Yes" on a ballot proposition. You know many in the community disagree with the proposition, but there is no organized "Vote No" campaign.
How do you handles these situations? These challenges, and many like them, confront newspapers during election season. The numerous questions underscore the premise of this book: Election coverage from start to finish is among the most demanding tasks in any newsroom.
Election coverage – more so than many of the other things that newspapers do – is scrutinized by readers. Every aspect – from candidate profiles to debate coverage to editorial endorsements to treatment of letters to the editor to reporting results – is put under the microscope, especially if editorial pages advance strong political opinions. Most readers do not make the distinction between the editorial page and news stories, which in itself can prompt a battery of questions and complaints.
Elections are a regular occurrence. And, like so many other aspects of everyday news, newspapers have a tendency to recycle stories from one election to another, simply inserting new names. Editors and reporters are further challenged by the fact that, unless there is an open seat, many of the same individuals seek office year after year. So it's doubly challenging to write fresh and stimulating stories that will appeal to readers.
The enormousness of the task demands that staffs plan all aspects of coverage. The more thorough your organization, the easier it will be to handle the unexpected circumstances that are certain to arise.
Common among all elections is the need to set policy and have a detailed, comprehensive calendar. Newsrooms must assign responsibilities and set dates for task completion.
The principles are the same for all newspapers, no matter their size or frequency. However, coordinating coverage is a trickier proposition for nondailies, which have fewer editions in which to package coverage and allow for reader response. That's especially challenging in those cases where all the elections – from local to state to national, plus referendums – are conducted in November.
Decisions must be made early on about the depth and scope of coverage. At the same time, newsrooms must recognize these elements are guidelines. Staff must remain flexible and have the ability to adjust to circumstances and events.
Newspapers must give equal attention to text and graphics. The impact of solid election coverage will be diminished if information is not presented in a clean and easy-to-read format.
When is the best time to begin discussing election coverage? At the beginning of the election cycle. And when is that? Cynics will say the cycle never ends and, in many respects, that's true.
Consider the process of endorsing candidates. The best editorials, like solid news stories, are those that are well researched. An endorsement editorial addressing incumbents can involve comparing candidate promises to their votes. To make that easier, reporters and editors should keep running scorecards of key votes and comments made by elected officials. The process may seem tedious. But spending an occasional 15 minutes here and there can spell long-term dividends, and will result in stronger and more meaningful editorials.
However a newsroom defines the election season, it's important to be ready for the launch. That means preparing early and reviewing plans often.CHAPTER 2
Campaigns: From beginning to end
Premise: Readers will scrutinize coverage for consistency and balance. Spell out as many aspects of coverage as possible, as newsrooms are bound to become chaotic as elections approach.
Election coverage is like sports coverage. Certain elements are standard procedure.
Preseason previews give readers a glimpse of teams' strengths and weaknesses. Candidate announcements shed light on their priorities.
The grind of a sports season offers opportunities for highlighting individuals' roles and to report on team development. Months-long campaigns provide ample chance for candidates to exchange press releases on what they would bring to the table and how they would best serve constituents.
Sports seasons often are filled with surprises – an unexpected injury or a coach under fire for players' dismal performance. Many political operatives make it their mission to stir the pot during campaigns.
Teams finish their regular schedules and then face the playoffs, prompting another preview of expectations. Many candidates face the initial hurdles of endorsement conventions or primary elections, each time challenging reporters to keep the next story fresh and informative.
Coaches and athletes finish their seasons either on a high or low note, which is typically followed by a post-mortem and a look ahead to next year. A final wrap is put on the election season, too, by analyzing what went right and wrong in campaigns, and what it all means for policy-making by a particular governing body.
To do justice at each step, editors and reporters must plan coverage from season beginning to season end.
An excellent first step is a brainstorming session. In advance, retrieve back copies of previous election coverage. It's also beneficial to spend time researching other newspapers and talking to peers about how they have approached elections in terms of content as well as staff responsibilities.
Editors then should sift through all the ideas and draft an outline for coverage, accepting feedback from staff for refinements. Above all, view this as a living document that can be tweaked through the twists and turns of campaigns.
[check] List all races that need to be covered – from local to state to federal. Don't forget local or state referendums.
Just thinking about all the aspects of election coverage is exhausting. Newsrooms with the best organization will deliver the strongest product for their readers. So it's important to start at the beginning: Understand what needs to be covered by listing each and every race or referendum.
A variety of sources can help with compiling this information. School, city and county officials know what offices are up for re-election. State government Web sites will list legislative, congressional and statewide contests. Most newsrooms, by virtue of their ongoing coverage of governing bodies, will know who and what are up for a vote in the most familiar races.
Other elective posts are not routinely monitored. Judgeships at a variety of levels, and soil and water conservation district supervisors, are a couple of examples. Again, contact the respective offices or Web sites for information.
It's also an excellent practice to review newspapers and sample ballots from the previous election. Be sure to compare a corresponding year – whether it's a presidential or midterm election.
Referendum questions may generate the most attention in some elections. Is a school district asking to raise taxes for capital improvements or operating income? Is a community voting to authorize municipal liquor sales? Is a county seeking to combine some elective offices – for example, the auditor and treasurer?
On a statewide level, don't forget the referendums whose outcomes can have a local impact depending on whether they pass or fail. Proposed constitutional amendments can cover an array of issues, such as additional transportation funding, legalization of same-sex marriage and an expansion of gambling.
Most referendums, especially those that are strictly local initiatives, will receive blow-by-blow coverage as policy-makers deliberate whether to advance the questions to voters.
[check] Create a master calendar. Identify key dates – internal and external.
Election coverage includes many red-letter dates and events. Again, track down the dates early and create a master calendar. Some key issues to consider when compiling your calendar:
* When do candidate filings open and close? Are these dates different for local elections and state and national races?
* Does the state have precinct caucuses?
* Do the various political parties have endorsement conventions and at what levels – legislative, congressional, state?
* What are the dates for the primary and general elections?
Other "secondary" dates should include such things as candidate forums and expected dates of endorsements from various lobbies.
A master calendar must be updated regularly and should be easily accessed by all staff. Post it on-line as well as on the newsroom bulletin board.
As crowded as this calendar appears, the "internal" calendar must be even more detailed. Coordinating thorough election coverage – in a way that is organized and friendly to readers – is complicated. Here are some issues that must be on your internal calendar:
* When candidate profiles and questions-answers will appear
* When endorsements will be published
* The deadline for letters to editor
Once those dates are set on the calendar, backtrack and set up all the dates to get the information you need to meet those deadlines.
Setting these dates on the calendar also will help you organize your staff. For example, who is going to prepare the questions to ask candidates in each race? If candidates are to provide written responses, someone must write the letter by a certain date. Two other issues like that:
* Some newspapers interview candidates separately for profiles and endorsement purposes. If these are joint interviews and will involve a few writers, schedules must be coordinated.
* Who is contacting candidates and collecting biographical information, including photos? Will the newspaper be accepting submitted photos, or will all photos be taken by staff, thereby necessitating coordination of appointments?
If this doesn't sound challenging enough, throw in the wild card – candidate availability. Remember, candidates have a host of commitments themselves and, in most cases, a full-time "day" job. They also may well be dealing with multiple media outlets. It might take several exchanges with candidates to line up mutually convenient dates.
It's never too early to begin an election calendar.
[check] Have a uniform format for announcing candidacies. Consistency is key.
Reporting candidate announcements is one of the most important elements of coverage. It's likely the first opportunity to introduce many of these individuals to readers, and it sets the tone for fair and responsible coverage of races and issues.
Announcements arrive haphazardly via phone calls, faxes, e-mails or personal visits. In most instances, candidates themselves will make the initial contact. But don't be surprised if the announcement comes from a spouse, campaign manager or the political party.
All announcements should include basic biographical information and some reference to candidates' key issues or why they are running. Beyond that, newsrooms should have clear guidelines as to how much detail to include. Some candidates will deliver a three-page press release with lengthy position statements on myriad issues. Others will simply call, say they are running and ask, "What do you need?"
Other decisions must be made:
* Where are the stories displayed – page 1, another section front or inside?
* Is treatment the same for incumbents and challengers?
* Are photos used with the first story?
Consistency is key, and it might vary by the race. It's likely that newspapers will give higher priority to the candidacy of a local county commissioner or legislative candidate than a state auditor or attorney general candidate. It's acceptable, and necessary, to assign different priorities to different races. The important point is that all candidates within the same race, whether incumbents or challengers, should receive similar visibility on their initial announcements.
Special circumstances may well warrant special coverage, and these usually are quickly identified. Incumbents announce their retirement and then unexpectedly resurrect a re-election bid. A mayor, identified primarily with local politics, is tabbed as a candidate for lieutenant governor. A local resident, in his first bid for elective office, challenges a popular congressman who has attained national stature.
Newsrooms are typically ready for the official candidate filing periods. Candidates also may announce early to get extra exposure before pages are cluttered with election news. And many editors and reporters will take the initiative to poll incumbents on their plans for re-election. All of these stories are written in advance of the filing period and could prompt other individuals to step forward early. The common denominator should be that, no matter when the announcement is made, reports should be similar. If candidates announce in advance of filings, do a report according to guidelines. Their subsequent official filing can be handled in a single sentence.
Guidelines should be specific and clear, especially for the circumstance that inevitably arises: A candidate walks in the newsroom office late in the afternoon, and a sole reporter remains. As one editor fondly says, it's the "yo-yo" factor: "You're on your own."
[check] Campaigns have several steps. Decide a plan for play-byplay coverage.
Campaigns are a continuum from initial announcements to rallies and debates to the constant exchange of press releases. Each step prompts a decision on coverage, no different from the everyday decisions editors and reporters make on a variety of fronts. The benchmark is the same: Does the story rise to the level of broad public attention? The answer varies by the circumstances.
Some events warrant a preview. Others deserve an advance story and coverage. Some might be covered adequately by callbacks. Others can be ignored.
Specific distinction should be made between legitimate news and events staged purely as fundraisers or publicity stunts. The first set belongs in the news columns; the latter should be paid advertising. It's especially disconcerting to see those newspapers that not only run news stories on fundraisers, but then also cover them. It's a dangerous practice. Once a precedent is set, newspapers are obliged to follow suit with similar events.
In that vein, editors must be savvy to what's being advanced in press releases while being aware that the releases are really an advertising campaign. Obvious red flags are weekly press releases attacking a candidate's opponents and advancing platforms. When this occurs, editors should kindly refer candidates to the advertising department.
If a release is deemed newsworthy, then treat it with fairness and consistency. Newsrooms should take extra steps to provide balanced coverage in the same story. In most cases – unless the story has a time element – it's worthwhile to wait the extra day to present both candidates' positions in the same report. Newspapers, and not candidates, should set the tone for coverage. Don't be surprised if candidates issue releases to be strategically followed up by an ad or some other media event.
[check] Stick to the issues, and then address layout with equal attention to display and content.
Discuss election coverage with any group of editors and reporters and one topic immediately surfaces: How can coverage be made interesting?
It's a sad commentary that rank- and-file citizens increasingly pay less and less attention to public affairs, whether at their local, state or national levels. They'll complain when decisions have a direct impact. A city council raises utility rates, or the legislature supports an across-the-board increase in income taxes. These actions are bound to gain citizens' attention. But a growing number of people would be hard-pressed to name city council or school board members, not to mention their members of the U.S. Congress. The only more unfortunate circumstances are those publishers and editors who take this as a sign to "dumb down" their coverage of public affairs overall and elections specifically. If newspapers truly want to position themselves as the source of local information, and their editorial pages as a forum for the exchange of ideas, they ought to take seriously their role of informing readers about candidates' stands on the issues.
Candidate profiles inevitably will focus on the issues central to their platforms, but voters need to know where the candidates stand on a variety of bread- and-butter concerns. In the end, people will vote for candidates who they believe will advance policies in their best interests.
Campaigns are weeks – even months – long, and it's helpful to give readers a couple of opportunities to digest information. One way to accomplish this is to publish candidate profiles, with an accompanying biographical box and feature photo, fairly early in the campaign. Then, when it's closer to the election, follow up with a Q&A and mug shot. Certain campaigns will get additional attention through the exchange of press releases and candidate forums.
Equal attention must be given to display and content. Newspapers obviously must be able to accommodate all the material, which can be quite challenging in an election with a full slate of local, state and national candidates. The presentations also must be reader friendly.
Excerpted from Votes and Quotes by Jim Pumarlo. Copyright © 2007 Jim Pumarlo. Excerpted by permission of Marion Street Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Covering elections is a juggling act,
Chapter 1: Setting the stage,
Chapter 2: Campaigns: From beginning to end,
Chapter 3: Interviewing candidates,
Chapter 4: Letters to the editor,
Chapter 5: Don't shirk responsibility of endorsements,
Chapter 6: Graphics,
Chapter 7: Utilizing the Web,
Chapter 8: Voter guides,
Chapter 9: Profiling and evaluating judicial candidates,
Chapter 10: Challenge of reporting school referendums,
Chapter 11: Polls: Covering the horse race,
Chapter 12: Be organized for election day/night,
Chapter 13: Coverage doesn't end with election edition,
Chapter 14: Conduct a post-mortem on elections,
Chapter 15: Explaining the policies,