Introducing candidates: Preparing for the YOYO factor
The Inlander/March 2014
This even-numbered year launches another election cycle. Some newspapers are well into the mode with spring elections. It’s not too early for everyone to convene a brainstorming session for the general elections this fall. In all cases, it’s essential to pay attention to the central figures: the candidates.
There are many elements of outstanding election coverage: campaigns from start to finish; letters to the editor; editorial endorsements; voter guides; election night/post-election coverage. The foundation of all coverage, however, begins with proper introduction of the candidates to your staff as well as your readers.
I call it the yo-yo factor. Consider the scenario where a candidate walks into the newsroom on a Friday afternoon. A rookie reporter is alone with no one to consult for story direction: “You’re on your own.”
The first impressions of candidates to the electorate mean everything, and newspapers most definitely play an important role in making those introductions.
It might be easiest for reporters to recall their first job interview. After all, candidates are applying for a job. They must convince their bosses – the electorate – that they are the most qualified to effectively advance constituent interests. It is the newspaper’s responsibility to present that information in a clear and meaningful manner.
Here is one checklist as newsrooms map a plan for interviewing and introducing candidates:
Know the issues: Preparation is most important in presenting a well-rounded profile of the candidates and issues. Convene a newsroom brainstorming session.
Prepare the questions: This should be fairly straightforward if your newspaper aggressively covers public affairs. Employees in all departments are an excellent resource as they usually are an excellent cross-section of a community. Go beyond the newspaper office, too. Write an editorial asking your readers what questions should be top of mind.
Cross-examine candidates: Reporters must demand that candidates answer your questions in their own words, minus the cheat sheet they’ll often have. Don’t accept simple yes/no responses, and don’t be afraid to ask them to elaborate if answers fall short of expectations.
Assign reporters to specific races: It’s ideal when editors can assign reporters to those races where they are most familiar with the issues: i.e. city council reporters covering municipal elections. At minimum, the same reporter should interview and cover the campaigns for all candidates in a specific race.
Decide on format for profiles: Different reporters will have different writing styles, but information should be presented in similar format. One approach is to write candidate profiles accompanied by a Q&A on the questions being posed to all candidates.
Written questionnaires demand preparation: Some interviews are handled via written questions and answers. If questions can be answered by simply “yes” or “no,” be sure to have candidates explain “why.” Set word limits for answers, and enforce them. The same person should review questionnaires from candidates in similar races to ensure consistent editing.
Prep your advertising department: News and advertising departments should sit down early to preview the election. Candidates should be introduced to both departments, though it’s important to maintain a separation between news coverage and advertising campaigns.
Each race will prompt a distinctive set of questions, but some questions should be common among all races. Always be certain to ask the standard questions as responses might be unexpected and enlightening.
Consider a candidate who was asked: “Why are you running for county commissioner?” After an uncomfortable minute or so, he opened his mouth to reveal a set of nearly toothless gums. He then closed his mouth, leaned forward and looked the editor straight in the eye. His response: “Dental benefits.”
Fairness and consistency are the trademarks of election campaign coverage, and that begins with a plan for introducing the candidates. A solid launch with all candidates will pay all-around dividends.