Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training

During election season, pay attention to who’s delivering the message

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Publishers' Auxiliary/May 2014

A regional arts council distributes funds to local
artists, courtesy of a grant from the state arts board. A start-up company gets
a boost from a venture capital fund. A local bike trail will finally connect
two cities, thanks to support from a new state trails program.

Government, at its core, is in the business of
collecting taxes and then redistributing the money for programs and services thoroughly
debated by lawmakers. In the end, legislators’ support or opposition for
programs is conveniently forgotten when funding is announced. It’s a good bet all
lawmakers are ready to take credit for delivering money to local

Editors always should consider when to acknowledge a
connection between the “whom” and “what” in news reports. It bears extra
attention during election season when candidates conjure every conceivable way
to get their names in the public. Incumbents especially are in excellent
position to boost their re-election efforts with a steady stream of appearances
and press releases.

Editors should be careful not to let their cynicism
stand in the way of legitimate news. Politicians do campaign on the ability to
deliver critical votes – for policies and dollars – that benefit local
interests. When they do so, they deserve to take some credit.

But there are plenty of instances where newsrooms
should take pause.

Savvy politicians seize every opportunity to step up
their public relations efforts. It’s no coincidence when a member of Congress addresses
a county board to announce support for federal funds for a local highway
project. Or consider an incumbent facing a tough re-election who asks for time
on a city council agenda to provide an update on federal or state legislative
issues. Election time also is a chance for a legislative candidate to attend a
school board meeting and endorse more state dollars for education.

Do not automatically discount these scenarios as
ploys for publicity. There may be legitimate news. But everyone should be on
the lookout to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Consider a governor who issues a press release for
every local highway funding project. A lawmaker announces the rules for a state
quilting contest. Another announces that shipping season has closed on the
local waterway. A legislator proclaims that free tax preparation assistance is
available for qualifying residents.

The releases indeed carry news, but editors should
have no qualms in eliminating all references to the lawmakers. There is
absolutely no connection between the news and the politician.

Election season also is a reminder to evaluate when to
identify a link between individuals and their families, employers or certain
organizations. There is no universal right or wrong in these situations, but
decisions warrant consistency. Newsrooms should develop general guidelines,
keeping in mind that all circumstances must be reviewed on their individual

Newspapers typically confront these decisions in
connection with “bad” news. Editors should not forget, however, the instances
of prominent residents – politicians included – who expect favorable treatment
in their local newspapers. These individuals expect that certain items will be
published – and at minimum, that they will be connected to this good news –
items that would not see print under ordinary circumstances.

Remember, bending the
rules for “good” news can produce just as many headaches for editors as looking
the other way when “bad” news occurs.

Pumarlo.com • Jim Pumarlo • Community Newsroom Success Strategies • 1327 W. Sixth St. • Red Wing, MN • 55066 • (651) 380-4295