Elements of outstanding election coverage
Publishers Auxiliary/May 2006
Election coverage is demanding and filled with potential pitfalls, especially in community newspapers where resources always are stretched to the limits and where editors face a battery of ongoing decisions and questions.
Candidates regularly seek attention for their campaigns. It begins with the day they announce their intentions, and will continue with requests to publish press releases and photos.
Despite a newspaper’s best efforts, some candidates will complain of “biased” coverage. Often, newspapers are challenged why they do or do not endorse candidates.
Election coverage is among the most scrutinized areas of reporting. All aspects — from candidate profiles to coverage of debates to editorial endorsements to treatment of letters to the editor to how results are reported — are put under the microscope. The enormity of the task demands thorough planning and coordination.
Many elements are part and parcel to outstanding election coverage, and they all require setting policies. They all require assigning responsibilities and setting dates for completion of tasks. The principles remain the same, whether overseeing coverage at a daily or weekly publication.
Campaigns — from start to finish: Newspapers must have a plan for how much attention to devote to all the races — local, state and national — plus special ballot questions such as local levy referendums for schools. One of the first steps is to list all the races that will be on the ballot. Next, mark the noteworthy dates from endorsing conventions to filing periods to important candidate forums. Assigning responsibility for specific races should be done early so reporters can become familiar with candidates and issues.
Letters to the editor: The exchange of ideas is the lifeblood of editorial pages. That said, election letters demand extra attention due to the preponderance of orchestrated campaigns. Editors will navigate the election season best by establishing guidelines early and publicizing them often. In a nutshell, newspapers should emphasize letters by local residents on local issues.
Endorsements: Newspapers have a responsibility, even an obligation, to weigh in on who they believe will best advance the interests of their communities. Editorials are most balanced, and more readily accepted by readers, when they identify the strengths and weaknesses of all candidates, and then recommend someone on the basis of the information presented.
Election night/post-election analysis: Most people want to know more than simply who won and who lost, information that usually is readily available on morning radio or television. Newspaper reports need to offer analysis in addition to results. Newsrooms must put just as much preparation into the post-election edition as their overall campaign coverage.
Voter guides: Newspapers often position voter guides as a one-stop guide to elections. In reality, these special editions are one slice — albeit an important one — of overall coverage. It’s unrealistic to believe that months-long campaigns can be whittled down and presented in a single package. At minimum, voter guides should provide a glossary of all races and questions that will be on the ballot.
Several other elements go into outstanding election coverage, including how to incorporate graphics and how to use the Web to complement coverage. All the elements have a common thread. Responsible coverage demands fairness and consistency.
If an incumbent’s re-election bid is reported on page 1, a challenger’s announcement should receive similar play.
If one candidate submits a letter elaborating on his or her campaign stances, and it’s published on the editorial page — complete with a mug shot — other candidates should be afforded similar opportunity.
If a statewide candidate campaigns locally for the primary purpose of a photo opportunity, you’ll be hard-pressed to turn down a similar request from an opponent.
The steps for fair and thorough election coverage are similar to the other ethical decisions which face newsrooms every day. Develop the policy, implement the policy, and explain the policy.
Election coverage ranks at the top of news that affects readers. A periodic explanation of policies is an excellent tool. The items outlined here, and many more, should be addressed during each election season. In some cases, they bear repeating more than once during an election cycle.
Two final points. Always have the same person communicate policies. And don’t forget to explain policies to personnel in all the newspaper operations as well as to readers.
Policies also should be subject to review. Editors never will get unanimous agreement from readers. The goal, however, is to help readers understand how decisions are made — the hows and whys behind newspaper coverage.