Covering Politics Civic Journalism Style

by Rick Thames

Charlotte Observer

When voters sent George Bush into early retirement in 1992, we journalists looked around and said, "This must be the year of the angry voter." Then came 1994 and the American public really showed us anger, throwing record numbers of Democratic incumbents out of office in Congress and across the country.

What will 1996 be about?

Will this be the election in which voters finally hear candidates speaking to voters' concerns and focusing on the problems they face? Or will citizens send yet another angry message this Election Day, and ask themselves, again, what do we have to do to be understood?

There's no mistaking what fueled last November's hostility. A Times Mirror poll taken just before the congressional elections found that only 33% of the public thought elected officials cared about their beliefs (down from 36% in 1992) and only 42% believed that government is run for the benefit of all people.

We journalists, of course, can't guarantee that candidates will adopt campaign platforms and strategies that speak to the public's concerns. But don't we have a responsibility to dig out and publish what voters need to know about the candidates, anyway?

What do the American people want that we aren't providing? Simply this: the information they need to make an intelligent decision.

For most voters, elections are pretty much a matter of hiring and firing. In that sense, voters are a lot like personnel managers whose desks are piled high with resumes.

Unlike journalists who earn a living covering politics, voters have a lot of other things competing for their attention -- at home and at work. We've been quick to misjudge their unfocused nature as ambivalence. Most take their role quite seriously. Times Mirror found last year that 66% of Americans "completely agree" it is their duty to always vote, up from 46% in 1987.

Still, their busy lives require that they get to the bottom line. They want to know: Who is doing a good job? Who needs to be replaced? Who'd make a good replacement?

Given that need, is it any wonder that they find the media so frustrating? They are watching us, hoping we'll help them sort through this pile of candidate resumes. And look how we waste their time, filling our news reports with:

Unsubstantiated attacks of one candidate against another about something that won't matter a month after the election.

Internal squabbles within political parties that ceased to be relevant to most voters years ago.

The latest horse-race poll, jammed with statistical odds, but devoid of issues and packaged as if this were a sporting event or a beauty contest.

A so-called color piece here about how this candidate changed the part in her hair and, over there, how that candidate switched to boxer shorts.

"Investigative" reporting revealing that a candidate maybe loaned cash 20 years ago to a brother-in-law who made a movie where everybody took off their shorts.

Listen. Voters are saying stop wasting my time. Tell me what I need to know to make an informed decision on Election Day.

Here are six things you can do this time around to make your political coverage more relevant to your viewers:

1. Discover what matters to voters to learn what this election is really about.

You won't come upon this by interviewing candidates and their staffs. And, contrary to popular belief in most newsrooms, you are unlikely to "sense it" simply by trusting your journalistic gut. To learn what this election is really about, you will have to talk to voters. Lots and lots of voters. And then you will need to stay in touch with voters throughout the campaign to keep up with shifting and newly emerging issues.

How to do that? At the Charlotte Observer in 1992, we conducted a series of issues polls, followed by individual interviews and focus groups with poll respondents who agreed to keep advising us throughout the campaign. Other media organizations conduct dozens of in-depth interviews with a cross-section of the community. They organize panels of citizens willing to offer wisdom throughout the campaign. And they invite the general public to agree or disagree with their conclusions about election priorities.

The important thing is that you listen closely. And keep listening.

In early 1992, for instance, we didn't expect Carolinians to be an anxious as they were about the economy. We also kept picking up references to values -- a sense of a nation adrift ethically, morally. No amount of newsroom brainstorming would have led us independently to prioritize that as a campaign issue. In fact, we doubted its significance even when voters kept bringing it up.

Apparently, Republicans also picked it up in their polling and attempted to connect with that concern through their "family values" campaign theme.

Most journalists dismissed the issue as a red herring. What can the president do to restore so-called "family values," whatever they are? It's irrelevant. Now, where's that Gennifer Flowers file?

In 1995, the values theme is stronger than ever. Many candidates are targeting Hollywood. And there's a rush on both sides to own the issue of school prayer. Values were -- and are -- an issue, all right, because the public said so.

2. As the campaign unfolds, resist temptations to let the latest political dogfight overshadow the most important issues.

Candidates will make up issues and shuffle their priorities, often at a dizzying pace, to try to gain an edge. But the public is nowhere near as fickle.

The economy was the single biggest issue as the 1992 campaign began, followed closely by health care, crime, the deficit and education. And that was still the case on Election Day.

3. Designate a place on your daily report to chronicle briefly the twists and turns of the campaign.

Here's where you keep your viewers up on the day-to-day developments, the sideshows, the dog-and-pony events, the made-up issues -- without sacrificing your focus on the real issues. At the Observer, we designated page 2-A for this purpose. Here, horse-race polls become news briefs. A candidate's insult of another might merit a mention. A photo opportunity won a hole if there was space. Readers who turned to this page knew what they were getting. And they came to expect the big headlines on the front page to be the things that mattered most -- in-depth issues, stories that picked apart candidates' positions to sort truth from fiction.

Some producers and editors may be saying right now, "It's all well and good to say let's send the campaign drivel to the back of the news budget, but I've got pages and air time to fill. Are there really that many voter-driven stories I can do to fill that time?"

The answer is yes. It won't be as simple as it was when you just chronicled the campaign trail. But it will be a lot more helpful to your viewers.

4. Devote the majority of your resources to enterprise stories that explore the issues, explain how they affect voters lives and reveal what the candidates propose to do.

This means you'll be asking candidates some very different questions. And you will be talking to sources you never imagined using for political coverage.

For instance, political scientists won't be much help as you try to understand the complex issues underlying health care. You need medical experts, consumer advocates, hospital patients to help tell that story.

Your health reporter, for example, could write about Medicare options. A business reporter could tackle the deficit, a features reporter who has done good pieces on kids and family issues might explore questions of family values. Your police and courts reporters might take a break from the daily din of gunfire to look at the reasons for crime and to truth squad the candidates' proposals.

A caution here. As you explore these issues, it is vital that you link them squarely with the candidates' proposals. Remember, readers are looking to hire or fire somebody. They crave straightforward explanations about the issues. The better informed they are, the better prepared they are to decide which candidate makes the most sense. But they can't decide anything unless they also know what the candidate is offering.

Here are some examples of enterprise reporting we did at the Charlotte Observer:

Explanatory articles on the deficit, health care, crime, drugs, education, values, environment, political ethics and welfare. In each case, we tried to show how these issues affected voters' daily lives and we detailed candidates' positions on the issue.

Stories that explored the worth and consequences of a candidate's specific proposal . (For example, so-and-so advocates a flat tax. How would that affect you?)

Stories that probed links between candidates' plans and their campaign contributors. Voters want to know who is behind candidacies -- and why.

Profiles that explored a candidate's leadership potential, based on previous job performance, life experiences, character traits and philosophical outlook.

Stories that illuminated differences between candidates on an issue important to voters. This became a regular feature that we called"Choices" Each began with a short summary of a voter's circumstances (needs a college loan, favors existing health care, wants more police officers) that concluded with this question: "Does it matter whom she votes for on Nov. 3?" A text block outlined each candidate's position.

Q&As with the candidates, if possible, with questions asked by voters themselves. (You'll find that voters' questions are very different from ours.)

5. Revamp your coverage of the campaign trail so it's centered on voter concerns. Here are some ways to do that.

Perhaps the simplest thing you can do is spend time talking to voters who have just heard the candidate's pitch. Did it connect? Does it have anything to do with their own concerns this election? What more would they like to know?

Pose questions to the candidate intended to clear up discrepancies, vagaries or inconsistencies important to voters. Make those answers, rather than the clicheŽ-filled stump speech, the top of your story.

Take the opportunity to explore in-depth one of the proposals the candidate alludes to in a speech or informal remarks. If it's a previously announced proposal, you can be prepared with some advance homework. If it's new, you'll have to shift into overdrive to get it on the air promptly. Still, it's worth it.

Truth-squad the candidate on his or her assertions, be they accusations aimed at opponents or Social Security statistics that don't add up. Campaign remarks often are laced with half-truths and too frequently go reported without vital context.

A favorite moment of the 1992 campaign trail came when George Bush visited Faith, N.C. on July 4 for a barbecue and softball game. It quickly became apparent the visit was intended to be only a photo op.

Bush's campaign turned down our request for an interview and rejected our invitation to meet with a group of voters to answer questions. No time, they said. We replied that we'd publish voter questions anyway -- whether or note Bush chose to answer them.

Bush's people were stunned. "You can't just publish unanswered questions like that," said the third or fourth person who got on the phone with me. Yes we can, I said. (It was, in fact, exactly how we had handled every other presidential candidate who'd campaigned in the Carolinas. And virtually every one had taken the time to answer voters' questions.)

In the end, Bush's folks faxed answers to three questions they said the president had "reviewed." Our coverage included those answers, along with 20 or so unanswered questions. In a note to readers, we explained: "We have forwarded your unanswered questions to the Bush campaign and will publish any answers we receive." (Bush eventually did send more answers.)

6. Remember, it's news when candidates aren't forthcoming with voters.

What do you do when the candidate won't answer questions or perhaps is so vague as to leave the voter unsure of where he or she stands? What if the candidate hammers only at manufactured issues?

You report that as the important news that it is.

There's no need to be squeamish. After all, this is not your agenda. These are matters that voters say they need cleared up if they are to make a good decision. Candidates who refuse to do so are, in effect, trying to deceive their way into office.

Warn the public, same as you would if you discovered elected officials violating open meetings laws or otherwise defrauding the public. Weave into your stories the quotes of voters who are genuinely offended at the candidate's vagueness, reminding the viewer that these are the people's concerns, not the media's.

This is a watchdog function the public will applaud. Some candidates will curse you, but few will dare to thumb their noses at the needs of the electorate for very long.

Some of what is outlined here may leave you feeling uneasy, because some of this requires that good journalists ignore their knee-jerk instincts. Combined, it challenges virtually every facet of political reporting as we know it today. It helps to make peace with that fact going in. It might be worthwhile to remind yourself from time to time why you're swimming against the tide. Why this is so important.

This approach to political reporting is what civic journalism is all about. Civic journalism recognizes that the real strength of this country rests with its citizens, and that it is the responsibility of those of us in the media, and in other positions of power and influence to do all we can to equip citizens with what they need to solve the challenges we face.

Somehow, the news business has drifted from the important role we journalists play as public servants. We've tended to align ourselves with power brokers, government insiders and political prognosticators instead of with viewers, with citizens. Some go so far as to dismiss average citizens as a naive bunch who need to be saved from themselves. That view is very wrong. It was the collective wisdom of citizens, not the so called experts, not the talking heads and certainly not we journalists, that built this nation -- and has kept it on course for more than 200 years.

Those of us who advocate civic journalism place a high value on understanding the concerns of citizens and then providing them what they need to deal with those concerns. That's not pandering. That's public service -- journalism's highest calling.

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