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Scholars and practicing journalists have long advocated models that promote democracy

As we prepare at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute for our “Down-home Democracy” workshop next month, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about why local election coverage is so important and how community newspapers can do it well. I’ve preached for years to my reporters at the Columbia Missourian and elsewhere that the true tests of quality election coverage are whether it does anything to help a voter make an informed decision and whether it fosters any public conversation about the challenges a community faces.

It turns out I’m not alone. Scholars and practicing journalists alike have been writing about this stuff for quite some time. Newspaper staffs that want to do better work with elections don't have to look hard for advice.

Perry Parks is the author of “Making Important News Interesting: Reporting Public Affairs in the 21st Century" (Main Street Press, 2006). A graduate of Northwestern University, a former regional editor for Patch and a teacher and PhD student at the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, Parks articulates about as well as anyone I’ve come across the importance of local election news.

Parks outlines a four-stage process for election coverage: raising awareness, educating voters, getting people to the polls and reporting on the outcome. Perhaps his biggest push is to persuade newspapers that elections are an opportunity to foster conversation about community challenges, and to give citizens an active voice in determining which issues the conversation should focus on. He also likens elections to a hiring process, a philosophy that he and Tom Warhover, executive editor of the Columbia Missourian and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism, developed while working together at The Virginian Pilot years ago. He admonishes public affairs journalists that they should “refuse to be boring.” Journalists can intrigue readers by avoiding political process and pseudo-events in favor of issue stories that illustrate the potential impact of elections.

“Effective election coverage involves a complex triangle of communication among citizens, politicians, and the journalists who cover both,” Parks writes. “Reporters need to find out what’s on the minds of both voters and candidates and help each group understand the other. Candidates have to lead by promoting a vision, but they also have to follow the needs and desires of the communities they want to serve.”

Warhover and Cheryl Gibbs, who now works in the journalism school at Miami University, offer a similar prescription in “Getting the Whole Story: Reporting and Writing the News” (Guilford Press, 2002). “Various researchers and authors have suggested that the gap between the values and concerns reflected in election coverage and the values and concerns of citizens is partly to blame for the fact that many people in recent years have been disillusioned with the political process,” they write. “In response to this disillusionment, a new frame for election coverage began to take shape in 1988. Politics was redefined, in a sense.

“If politics was more about shared problems requiring common solutions, then citizens could no longer be mere spectators. Many in the media began their election coverage by conducting surveys or convening small-group discussions to ask the public which issues were important to them. These news organizations then made sure their coverage of the election focused mainly on those issues and where the candidates stood in relation to them.”

One of the scholars who has documented the public’s declining interest in politics — and journalism’s contribution to the problem — is Thomas Patterson of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. In his latest book, “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-based Journalism” (Vintage Books, 2013), Patterson decries the fallacy of “balance” that drives lazy reporters to slap together “he said, she said” stories without ascertaining what the actual facts of an issue are. Journalists, he argues, would better serve their audiences by exploring from a position of authority the nuances of candidates' policy proposals rather than dwelling on the daily political horse race.

Davis “Buzz” Merritt was perhaps ahead of his time when in 1990, as an editor of the Wichita Eagle, he made a bold decision with his staff and his bosses to shun the traditional model of election reporting as they prepared to cover the Kansas gubernatorial election. They embarked upon a project called “Your Vote Counts,” which he describes in “Public Journalism and Public Life: Why Telling the News is Not Enough, Second Edition” (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998).

“In the interest of disclosure as the 1990 Kansas gubernatorial campaign begins, I announce that the Eagle has a strong bias,” he wrote in an open letter to his readers. “The bias is that we believe the voters are entitled to have the candidates talk about the issues in depth. … If our insistence … winds up seeming to cost one or the other votes, so be it. I am perfectly comfortable defending the notion that you as a voter have a right to know what the candidates intend to do once in office, and if the candidates won’t say what they intend to do, letting you know that very plainly. … What the eventual winner intends to do with the great gift that voters will bestow is a straightforward question that deserves a clear answer.”

Surveys after the election confirmed that Kansas readers exposed to the newfangled coverage appreciated the effort, and voter turnout increased across the state, particularly in areas where the Eagle’s coverage was available. That’s a result that no one can argue with.

Our Down-home Democracy workshop will focus on election news at the local level, where candidates vie for seats on city councils and school boards and where governments float bond issues or tax increases. If we can take to heart and apply the suggestions these scholars and journalists offer up, we’ll go a long way toward creating a more constructive style of election reporting — one that truly advances local democracy.

Scott Swafford  
 
University fellow


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