The Inlander/ Nov. 17, 2007
The race among states to be first in selecting presidential candidates guarantees that holiday gatherings are likely to be interrupted by political telemarketers. The accelerated election season also means that newspapers must be prepared for all candidate announcements.
No. 1, newsrooms should have a standard format for candidate announcements, regardless of whether individuals are political newcomers or seeking their eighth term. No. 2, editors and reporters should have a process for approaching candidate interviews.
Preparation is a requisite for solid news stories. This principle is doubly important when presenting candidates. For the majority of readers, these stories will be their primary exposure to these individuals and will be the basis for their decisions at the ballot box. The decisions of these policy-makers at all levels affect nearly everything in people’s everyday lives – from taxation to zoning to classroom sizes.
Newspapers should not underestimate the scrutiny of candidate announcements. Yet, many newsrooms approach these stories too casually – and the results are predictable.
On one extreme, political novices, greeted by rookie reporters, walk in and announce they are seeking elective office. Reporters get some basic biographical information, ask why they are running, and a short story runs on an inside page.
On the other extreme, veteran candidates are interviewed by reporters knowledgeable in public affairs. Candidates come prepared with lengthy announcements, position papers and a photo. Reporters ask probing questions and a detailed front-page is produced.
The two scenarios underscore the pitfalls – for candidates and readers alike – if newspapers do not have a plan. Distinctive circumstances will warrant that some candidacies deserve greater attention, but guidelines will provide a framework.
The second step – interviewing and presenting candidates – is equally important. Reporters must take steps to educate themselves on the issues before quizzing candidates.
Reporters are well suited to draw up initial questions by virtue of regularly covering governing bodies. Other avenues are available to identify the key issues in a race. For example, review letters on the opinion page to see what is on people’s minds. In school board races, check with the parent-teacher organizations. Candidates and organizations also typically have Web sites that outline their platforms. In addition, the Internet is a valuable and convenient resource for reporters to familiarize themselves – and their readers – on issues.
Editors and reporters should reach consensus on candidate questions. Also, determine if specific questions should be asked of particular candidates. For example, in a school board race, maybe one candidate is running for the sole purpose of making the Pledge of Allegiance mandatory in all classrooms. The process of identifying questions will be streamlined if newspapers are editorializing or writing in-depth stories on issues during regular coverage of governing bodies.
It’s healthy as well to solicit opinions outside the newsroom on what people identify as the major issues. The newspaper family – employees in all departments – usually is an excellent cross-section of a community.
Go outside the newspaper office, too. Check with the superintendent, parent-teacher associations, the chamber of commerce and other groups that have a vested interest in the quality of schools. Blend everyone’s ideas with your initial list and come up with a final set of questions.
A similar process can be followed for other races. As editors move up the jurisdictional ladder – such as legislative or congressional races – give priority to issues of greatest local consequence.
Knowing the questions is one thing; understanding them and having the ability to cross-examine candidates is another. This is more important in such races as legislative and congressional contests where candidates are usually prepped for interviews. Reporters’ greatest challenge will be to flush out answers in the candidates’ own words, minus their cheat sheets. Don’t be afraid to have them elaborate if answers are incomplete or unsatisfactory. Try to think of unorthodox questions that will force candidates to think on the spot, and delve into territory that won’t be covered at the usual candidate forums.
Incumbents often have an advantage in interviews, especially if they have served for any length of time. It can be daunting for reporters; consider a rookie reporter interviewing a 12-year state legislator. For that reason, it often is helpful for two people to do the interviews. The editor, or maybe even a general manager or publisher, should sit in on those races identified as being especially important.
All editors and reporters likely remember the interviews for their current jobs. What were the toughest and most meaningful questions – the ones that afforded an opportunity to distinguish you from the other applicants? Which questions prompted a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and which ones gave your prospective boss an inside look of who you are, and what you’d bring to the table?
The same principles should apply when quizzing candidates, no matter the office. After all, they are applying for a job. Their answers must convince their bosses – the electorate – that they are the most qualified to represent and effectively advance constituent interests.