Covering elections is hard work. Considering the hyper-partisanship of readers, the dozens of interest groups knocking on your door and the demands of new technologies, it’s amazing when a community newspaper can produce any meaningful coverage.
This article should help you get a handle on some of the challenges in election coverage. It was distilled from information in my new book, “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage.”
”Votes and Quotes” underscores the role and responsibility of newspapers in adding depth to the election process. That is a distinctive advantage we have over our media counterparts.
Here are five issues community newspaper editors face, with some accompanying guidelines.
Preparation is the most important aspect of candidate interviews. 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.
* Decide on a format for interviews. Different reporters will have different writing styles, but presentation of information should be similar.
* As much as possible, the same reporter should be interviewing and covering the campaigns for all candidates in a specific race.
* Be cautious to separate the wheat from the chaff in handling press releases from incumbents as well as challengers, especially releases that make a specific charge.
* Ask all candidates a standard battery of questions, even if you know the individuals well. Questions you might consider unnecessary – “Does the candidate have a criminal background?” – could produce surprising answers.
* Anticipate write-in candidates and decide how they will be covered, especially if candidacies surface late in the campaign.
Responsibility of endorsements
If newspapers believe so strongly in calling government bodies to action, or criticizing them for lack of action, shouldn’t they have equally strong convictions about the people who ultimately will make those decisions? Endorsing candidates for local offices often presents special circumstances as editors routinely are put in the position of offering “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to friends, neighbors, associates and maybe even co-workers.
* Publish an explanatory column/editorial in advance of endorsements. Don’t be afraid to share the challenges of certain endorsements due to personal relationships.
* Identify criteria for specific races, and endorse based on those criteria. Stick to the issues and avoid personalities.
* Editorials advance the best arguments, and are more readily accepted by readers, when they identify strengths and weaknesses of all candidates.
* Publish endorsements after candidate profiles have appeared but early enough to allow reader exchange.
* Don’t be afraid to solicit opinions from a “kitchen cabinet.” You might even ask readers what issues are most important in races.
Letters to the editor
Lively editorial pages are a pulse of vital communities. So why do so many editors stifle the exchange of ideas during the months-long election season? As a general rule, editors say letters that simply repeat ideas of another writer will not be published. At best, that’s a subjective decision. At worst, it’s telling a lot of local readers that their letters didn’t make the grade, and might well deter them from writing at any time of the year. Some newspapers even charge for “endorsement” letters.
* State deadlines, including a separate one for letters that raise new issues. Limit length and frequency; edit letters aggressively. Verify them all.
* Candidates should have the ability to write letters – with restrictions. Eliminate lawmaker columns during election season. Don’t let candidates use the letters column to respond to issues raised in paid advertising.
* Require facts to support attacks on candidates.
* Some issues raised in letters are more appropriately pursued as news stories.
* Newspapers are headed down a slippery slope if they begin charging for endorsement letters.
Reporting school referendums
Schools are at the heart of community life, and newspapers are supposed to be boosters of quality education. So how dare newspapers even think of writing stories that give a hint of voting “no” on school referendums? There is no right or wrong way to present continuing coverage of school referendums. The bottom line is that newsrooms must be prepared for the special dynamics inherent in covering these campaigns.
* Be aware that “Vote Yes” campaigns often are well financed and guided by a paid consultant. Referendum opponents are usually dwarfed in their efforts due to lack of resources.
* Newsrooms have many resources to thoroughly examine the pros and cons of issues. Education data is sliced and diced numerous ways, and much of the information is accessible through state and federal education department Web sites.
* Check with other editors where schools have sought referendums. Ask how they coordinated coverage and if they would have done anything differently.
* If groups have consultants, see where else the consultants were hired and how their campaigns were run. Find out if the efforts were successful.
* Explain to readers the distinctive roles between news coverage and editorial stances.
Election night/post-election analysis
Election editions should include more than simply “votes and quotes.” Newspapers should include as much analysis as possible of results, taking into account the limitations of staff and deadlines. Post-election coverage and analysis can and should continue in successive editions.
* Decide criteria for tracking down comments from winners and losers.
* Evaluate races in advance for any special dynamics. The previous election edition is an excellent starting point and can be instructive in races where incumbents are facing re-election. Identify factors that were critical to their victories.
* Be ready to spring someone loose to cover the unexpected developments.
* Interview experts or have individuals write an analysis of election results.
* Produce immediate commentary. Some analysis – examining results a day after the dust settles – can be incorporated into editorials as well as news stories. For example, explore how elections affect the dynamics of governing bodies.
Responsible election coverage demands setting and sticking to policies which then must be communicated. Newsrooms routinely field questions and complaints at each step of the election season. Why was my opponent’s announcement on the front page but mine was relegated to an inside page? Why did you edit my letter to the editor? My opponent’s photo was bigger; it isn’t fair. What gives you the right to tell us how to vote?
Editors will have an easier time, and be on stronger foundation, answering these questions if their staffs have taken the time to develop policies and announce them – in advance. Policies should be explained to readers, as necessary.
A column by the editor at the beginning of election season might lay out which endorsing conventions the newspaper plans to attend in person, and which will be handled by a follow-up call. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to write a column on the letters policy more than once during an election cycle.
Don’t expect that candidates or readers will remember the specifics of coverage from one election to the next. Each cycle brings a number of newcomers. Even the veterans of campaigns can use the reminder.