Introducing candidates: Preparing for the yo-yo factor

by | Feb 1, 2010 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/February 2010

Individuals arrive unannounced to launch their candidacy for an elective office. On another front, have you ever had candidates say the stories profiling their campaigns are biased?  Or how do you evaluate the barrage of photo requests during election season?

The realities and challenges of election coverage begin 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 office on a Friday afternoon. A rookie reporter is alone in the newsroom 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 arguably play the most important role in making those introductions.

It might be easiest for reporters to recall their first job interview. After all, candidates for elective office 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 help present that information in the clearest and most 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. Have a newsroom brainstorming session. Review coverage in your newspaper and other media of the particular governing body. A variety of Web sites can be helpful in identifying and explaining priority issues in specific races.

Prepare the questions: It should be fairly straightforward to produce a list of core questions if your newspaper aggressively covers public affairs. Employees in all departments can assist in this process as they usually are an excellent cross-section of a community. Go beyond the newspaper office, too. For example, in the case of school board elections, check with the superintendent, parent-teacher associations, the chamber of commerce and other groups that have a vested interest in the quality of schools. Try to think of unorthodox questions that will force candidates to think on the spot and delve into territory that won’t be covered at the usual candidate forums.

Cross-examine candidates: Reporters’ greatest challenge will be to flush out answers in the candidates’ own words, minus the cheat sheet they’ll often have. Don’t accept simple yes/no responses, and don’t be afraid to have them elaborate if answers are incomplete or unsatisfactory. It often is helpful for two people to do the interviews, even if only one person will be responsible for writing the story.

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. school board reporters covering school elections. That’s not always possible. At minimum, the same reporter should interview and cover the campaigns for all candidates in a specific race. Reporters will be able to focus and study the issues, thus resulting in stronger stories. Candidates and readers alike will understand who is covering what as campaigns progress.

Decide on format for profiles: Different reporters will have different writing styles, but information should be presented in similar format. One avenue is to write profiles that provide readers insight into what makes these candidates tick and identifies their priorities. A sidebar can include a Q&A on the questions being posed to all candidates in a particular race. Always include a photo and standard biography.

Written questionnaires demand preparation: Limited resources mean some candidate interviews will be handled via written questions and answers. This demands almost greater attention as there is no opportunity to pose follow-up questions. If questions can be answered by simply “yes” or “no,” be sure to have candidates explain “why.” Give candidates an opportunity to address issues not posed. Set word limits for answers, and enforce them. The same editors and reporters should review questionnaires from candidates in similar races to ensure consistent editing.

Prep your advertising department: Familiarize your advertising department on the candidates and the issues. It’s most useful to have the news and advertising departments 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.

Interviewing candidates: The questions

For the most part, candidates will be ready and prepped for the usual questions, and many will likely have written notes. Again, these questions should be asked. But also try to think of unorthodox questions that will force candidates to think on the spot and delve into territory that won’t be covered at the usual candidate forums.

Also, be attentive to their answers for appropriate follow-up questions.

Here are some sample questions – the routine as well as others appropriate for individuals interviewing to be hired by the electorate. It’s just a beginning; newsrooms can likely add to the list with a good brainstorming session.

What prompted you to seek office? Was it a personal initiative or were you encouraged by others?

What are the most important issues in your race, and how do you plan to address them?

Who do you identify as your base of support – specific demographics, organizations, special interests?

Who are the people most opposed to your candidacy, and what do you say to allay their concerns?

What is the chief strength and weakness of your opponent?

What are your strengths and weaknesses, and how will you compensate for your weaknesses?

What do you bring to the table that your opponent doesn’t?

How can you, as one vote, make a difference on the policy-making board?

How is your experience – or lack of experience – in the public and private sectors a plus or minus for the job?

Do you support term limits?

Do you agree with the philosophy that elected officials should enact broad policy and staff should handle daily administration? How do you approach this division of responsibilities?

You are elected to represent your constituency, yet at some point their wishes and beliefs likely will be contradictory to your personal beliefs. How will you arrive at your vote?

What specific practices will you implement to keep in contact with constituents?

Does your employment place any restrictions on your ability to serve?

What one issue is not being talked about in this race that should be getting aired?

What will you do to address the partisanship that seems to have filtered into all levels of government?

Political observers routinely rate the U.S. president’s first 100 days in office? If elected, what can we expect from your first 100 days?

What is the government’s role in providing specific services?

Can government be more efficient by partnering in the delivery of services and programs? Identify some possibilities.

Do you advocate public-private partnerships? Identify some possibilities.

Your opponent is most critical of your stance on this issue. How do you respond?

Think of your particular community or constituency 20 years from now. Name three things that must be addressed now to make it better for our kids.

How will changing demographics affect public policy?

Address the balance of public policy necessary to satisfy both rural and urban constituencies.

What one question are you glad we didn’t ask? Are there any skeletons in your closet?

Is there anything else you’d like to add?