Wick Communications

Elect to get ahead in 2012

In Elections on January 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm

Jim Pumarlo is a longtime community news guy. He’s consulted with newspapers all over the fruited plain and his latest book is “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage for Beginning and Veteran Journalists.” The following column appeared in the California Newspaper Publishers Association weekly email and I asked him if I could reprint it. He graciously agreed. Here’s a new year’s resolution: Resolve to get on top of the election cycle before it’s too late. Take it away, Jim… Clay

The general election is a year away. Numerous other political jurisdictions will conduct elections between now and then. Election preparation should be at the forefront of newsrooms.

Election coverage is one of the most demanding and exhaustive tasks that newsrooms undertake. Its various aspects from presenting candidate profiles to handling letters to the editor are scrutinized by candidates and the general electorate alike, underscoring the importance of fair and responsible coverage.

The coverage of months-long campaigns presents its challenges. That said, the process will be smoother for newsrooms – and the coverage more relevant to readers – if editors and reporters pay early attention. …

Each newsroom must approach coverage based on its resources and its particular lineup of races. As a starting point, identify and examine the various “elements” of election coverage. Here is one blueprint:

Generate a master calendar – Identify key internal and external dates. Internal dates include the schedule for candidate profiles and deadlines for letters to the editor. External dates include the release of campaign finance reports and candidate forums.

Prepare for candidate interviews – Newspapers are a primary source for in-depth information about candidates, especially their positions on a variety of issues. Reporters must be as well schooled on the issues as the candidates in order to produce stories with substance and meaning.

Set guidelines for letters – More newspapers restrict endorsement letters due to orchestrated writing campaigns. The problem must be addressed. Don’t forget, however, that the exchange of ideas remains the lifeblood of editorial pages and the heart of newspapers. Don’t be afraid to be aggressive in editing of letters, especially those that simply repeat themes.

Offer your recommendations – Newspapers have a responsibility, even an obligation, to weigh in on those individuals who they believe will best represent the interests of their communities. Editors and reporters usually have a distinctive insight on candidates. At minimum – if you’re hesitant to endorse specific individuals – consider presenting editorials that outline the issues you identify most important in specific races. If you’ve done a solid job on detailing where candidates stand on the issues, readers can make the link between the editorial and the candidates you deem most qualified to advance those positions.

Pay attention to graphics – Graphics play an important role in all aspects of election coverage from introducing candidates to reporting vote totals. Graphics, if done correctly, are another entry point into the story and give readers immediate information.

Use the Web – Newspaper websites are a vital element of coverage. They offer opportunity for leading the way on breaking news, to supplement analysis of issues, and to facilitate exchange among readers and candidates.

This is but one starting list, and newsrooms are likely to identify other elements of coverage by convening a brainstorming session. For example:

  • Judges are arguably among the most influential of elected officials. Newspapers should not be afraid to scrutinize judicial candidates and even offer a recommendation, especially if the races are of high visibility. Doing so requires extra effort, however, and therefore extra planning.
  • School referendums pose special circumstance, too. Schools are at the heart of community life, and newspapers are supposed to be boosters of quality education. That said, responsible reporting means examining issues and writing stories that could prompt “yes” as well as “no” votes.
  • What are criteria for statewide candidates who seek local coverage? How do you follow the campaign of a local candidate seeking a congressional office? Have you developed a checklist for election night so staff is prepared to offer analysis of the results?

Solid election coverage requires solid planning. In many respects, election season resembles a sports season. Certain elements are standard procedure. Preseason previews give readers a glimpse of teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Candidates’ announcements shed light on their strengths.

The grind of a sports season offers opportunities for highlighting individuals’ roles and to report on team development. Months-long campaigns provide ample chance for candidates to exchange press releases on what they would bring to the table and how they would best serve constituents.

Through it all, editors and reporters must strive for consistency and balance. That’s best accomplished by considering all elements of election coverage, then evaluating each step from season beginning to season end.

Jim Pumarlo

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