Elections are over – so keep covering them

by | Dec 1, 2012 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/December 2012

The 2012 elections are in the rearview mirror. Newly elected lawmakers will soon assume their duties, and newsrooms are returning to normalcy, however that is defined these days. For most editors and reporters, the next cycle of elections is the farthest thing from their minds.

Not so quick.

Newspapers dutifully recorded the “votes and quotes” from another exhausting campaign season. That doesn’t mean, however, that election coverage should take a permanent back seat until the next filing period opens. Indeed, with a little bit of brainstorming, newsrooms can identify substantive follow-up stories.  Continuing coverage – if  thoughtfully planned and carried out – goes a long way toward holding elected officials accountable.  It also can enrich your reporting and interpretation of local public affairs.

One example: It’s common practice for political commentators to rate the president after the first 100 days in office. Why not use a similar benchmark to evaluate the jobs your local elected officials are so for doing at their respective governing bodies?

Here are more examples of angles that can be pursued post-Election Day:

  • Candidates win elections on platforms of what they represent and what they promise to accomplish. Their stances and resulting actions in office often are the reason why they are challenged in the next election. Prepare periodic scorecards of how the lawmakers are performing, especially holding them accountable for campaign pledges.
  • A new year often is accompanied by a new agenda – “state of the state” speeches by the mayor, or county board chair, or school board president, whether they are new or continuing in their leadership positions. Detail their goals and track their progress, periodically generating stories and, where appropriate, editorial commentary.
  • Elections can produce new voting blocs and, as a result, a change in the dynamics of governmental bodies. That may be easily noticeable when individuals run on a party label. It’s less evident where office-holders are not elected on a partisan basis. Reporters who regularly cover local government are in excellent position to analyze the changes and preview what might be in store for citizens during the short term and long term.
  • Elections are adversarial. For every winning candidate, there usually is a losing candidate. For every referendum, there is usually a “vote yes” and “vote no” committee. Just because the election is over, it doesn’t mean these individuals and groups have dropped their interest. Check in with the losing sides for a story, or ask them to write a commentary.

Elections are challenging as well as chaotic for newsrooms, and understandably so. Substantive coverage is exhausting as reporters also strive to keep pace with the everyday news of their communities. As a result, many election stories may focus an individual’s ability to campaign rather than an ability to govern.

That’s why election coverage should not shut down when the polls close. Election editions may close the books on one election cycle, and they should be the springboard for the next cycle. Indeed, it’s fine to take a deserved break of election coverage for your staff as well as your readers. But don’t put it out of mind. Editors and reporters should periodically review the election edition and refresh themselves about what the voters said and what the victors promised.

Many candidates frequently receive a free pass on answering the tough policy questions as press releases are exchanged during the churn of election campaigns. Reporters have a better opportunity to follow and analyze actions once the winners have been seated and the dynamics of the governing bodies take shape. These stories will hold lawmakers and governing bodies accountable and will provide meaningful coverage for your readers.