Don’t close the books on the 2006 elections
The American Editor – American Society of Newspaper Editors/March 2007
Mention election coverage in the aftermath of the midterm contests, and most newsrooms will likely turn a collective deaf ear. Yet this is the perfect time ñ before the files are formally closed – for editors and reporters to evaluate how they performed in 2006 and to identify steps for improved coverage in 2008.
As a start, convene a brainstorming session to review and reflect on some of the basic aspects of election coverage. For example:
Consistency of coverage: Review overall coverage from the beginning to end; select one race as a case study. Did all candidates receive equal treatment in their initial announcements? If candidates issued press releases, were their challengers given opportunity to respond and/or offer their perspective in the same story?
Emphasize the local connection: Coverage of school board, county board or city council races is local by its very nature. But was the local perspective emphasized in statewide races? For example, did reporters quiz gubernatorial candidates on what their platforms meant to local constituents?
Provide forum for ideas: Were newspapers able to handle the overload of letters, especially the predictable barrage of the final days? If some letters were withheld, what were the criteria? Was the letters policy defensible and clear to readers?
Recommend candidates: Newspapers gather a great deal of information on candidates and issues including some that is not available to all voters. Did editors take advantage of their “inside seat on elections” to study the candidates and make recommendations as to which individuals would best serve their communities?
Analyze the election: Read the election edition again. Were readers given more than just “votes and quotes”? Did stories offer some analysis of which areas the candidates polled best and worst, and which issues resonated with voters? Did the stories help readers make sense of the results?
Expand the discussion: Kudos to those newsrooms that regularly conduct election post-mortems. Be sure, however, that the discussion extends beyond the editors and reporters directly involved with planning and carrying out the coverage. Seek the opinions of others in the newspaper office; advertising representatives who deal directly with candidates are a good sounding board. For additional feedback, ask the candidates themselves through a formal questionnaire or an informal question-answer session. Finally, consider convening focus groups of readers to identify strengths and weaknesses in election coverage. In the end, the most effective coverage is that which engages voters.
Many editors and reporters can rightfully take pride in their coverage for its thoroughness, focus on issues and reader-friendly presentation. But even the most comprehensive coverage is marginalized if readers don’t have ample opportunity to weigh in on the candidates and issues though an exchange on the editorial page.
It’s unfortunate, but the examples are numerous where newspapers publish candidate profiles in the last 10 days prior to the election. These stories were often the only comprehensive look at a race other than occasional reports of candidate debates.
The practice is just as troublesome on the editorial page. The idea of endorsing candidates, especially those in local elections, generates enough controversy without exacerbating the circumstances. In other words, give readers and candidates alike the opportunity to respond. What message is sent when the same edition carries the first of the newspaper’s string of editorial endorsements and a notice that the deadline has passed for election commentary from readers.
A fruitful post-election discussion will be a springboard for two items.
No. 1, identify steps to ensure fair and thorough election coverage by reviewing the policies inherent in the various elements of election coverage. Have a plan to develop the policy, implement the policy and explain the policy.
No. 2, focus on organization to guide the newsroom through the months-long election season. Identifying a list of action steps and a preliminary timetable now will reap dividends for reporters and readers alike.