Publishers Auxiliary/October 2007
Jim Pumarlo has it right when he says election coverage is “among the most demanding tasks in any newsroom.” That’s true no matter what size newsroom, so his practical guide to covering elections, “Votes and Quotes,” from Marion Street Press, should be a useful addition to most editors’ desks.
The book’s advice ranges from the elementary to the sophisticated: The essential nature of planning; of setting policies and explaining them (a Pumarlo specialty) to readers and campaigns; of fairness and consistency in both content and display; the pitfalls of setting precedents; how to discern real news from puffery; drawing the line between news and ads; the special and changing nature of judicial races; and the fundamentals of research and interviewing – with a reminder that the former should precede the latter and include a records check of candidates.
Pumarlo warns against “dumbing down” coverage top match readers’ decreasing attention to politics, or their attention span for political news. His advice ranges from broad principles to detailed practicalities, such as the value of gathering election concerns and questions from outside the newsroom; sample interview questions, several of which you probably wouldn’t have thought of; and double-teaming a veteran politician to help a rookie reporter. His guidance on handling letters, incumbent columns and endorsements is essential reading for editors at any level.
Not all the advice can be applied at all levels. Papers with small news staffs may feel much of this book is beyond them, but it can still help them define their aspirations, and they should glean some inspiration from it.
Pumarlo says, and we agree, that all papers should use the Web to break news; to archive past coverage; to facilitate exchanges between readers and candidates; and to offer deeper, broader information than can fit on the printed pages, such as candidate position papers and press releases; audio and video recordings of speeches and interviews; links to other sites.
He doesn’t include in that list one type of material ideal for the Web, detailed information on candidates’ finances, and his advice on covering campaign contributions is relegated to a chapter on post-election coverage. That’s a useful reminder of the need to look at post-election reports, but one that some readers may miss because of its location, near the book’s end.
Lesser glitches deal with polling. A survey’s margin of error does not apply to the difference between the percentages of the responses to a question, but to each percentage. Thus, if a poll has an error margin of 5 percent, and the horse race is 49-41, the overall result is within the error margin – and there’s even a small chance that the trailing candidate is actually ahead. (If you want to double-check an error margin, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The book says no poll is truly random because some chosen respondents aren’t home. In fact, scientific polling generally requires three attempts to reach someone at the number chosen randomly. Many pollsters also weight their results for age, race, sex, income and other demographic factors. Reporters should ask about these methods.
Pumarlo, who was a community editor in Red Wing, Minn., for more than 20 years, says he wrote the book partly to “underscore the role and responsibility of newspapers in adding depth to the election process.”
He does that well, and underscoring is needed, because many weekly and even small daily newspapers shy away from incisive election coverage. Their editors and publishers may think they lack the staff or time for the sort of coverage Pumarlo outlines. Or, they may fear they will make a mistake or make someone mad. Those in the latter group need to get out of the newspaper business, or work at developing some backbone. This book can help them do that.
An oft-heard excuse for lack of deeper election coverage is that “Everybody knows the candidates anyway.” Yes, personal contact with candidates is more likely in smaller communities, but most voters aren’t familiar enough with many of the issues facing the community -- or bold enough -- to ask candidates pointed questions if they encounter them. The local newspaper should have that sort of information, and should be boldly asking questions. That’s what the founders of our nation had in mind when they put freedom of the press in the Constitution.
The presumption that readers know candidates also keeps many community papers from making endorsements. Some endorse in state races but not in local contests. Too many fail to realize that their communities have grown so much that most voters aren’t personally familiar with the candidates, and can use editorial guidance.
Warren Wheat recognized that when he became editor of The News-Enterprise, a 17,000-circulation daily in Elizabethtown, Ky., five years ago. His county has 95,000 people, including two cities of about 22,000, and he thought his readers needed the paper’s thoughtful advice in choosing the county executive. Now the paper even endorses in school-board and city-council races. In introducing his first endorsement editorials, Wheat wrote that the paper wasn’t trying to tell people how to vote, but “to challenge readers to think about their alternatives.”
Pumarlo argues for endorsements, with priority on “those races that have the greatest influence on readers, and where editors and reporters can gather the most information.” He’s right again, and his chapter on the topic is one of the book’s best.
A community newspaper is in a unique position to provide the information and analysis – and, ultimately, the opinion – to help citizens fulfill the roles our nation’s founders envisioned for them. Pumarlo’s book will help editors and reporters fulfill their constitutional roles, too.
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky