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Respondents indicated that election news that focuses on issues and candidates' positions is most valuable.

Missouri residents believe that municipal elections are important and that newspapers are a valued source of information about them, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by the Insight and Survey Center at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. The results also show that residents favor in-depth, issue-based coverage of elections, stories that test the assertions candidates make during campaigns for local office and reporting methods that allow side-by-side comparisons of candidates. They find information that comes directly from candidates — through web sites, social media or campaign mailings — less helpful, according to the research.

Local politician participate in RJI's Down-home Democracy workshop Jan. 31. Photo courtesy of Dave Marner We shared these and other survey results for the first time with editors and reporters from dozens of small community newspapers in Missouri and surrounding states at our Down-home Democracy workshop this past weekend. About 50 journalists attended the seminar, which featured more than a dozen expert speakers.

The survey was conducted by the RJI Insight and Survey Center under the direction of Ken Fleming and Sarah Samson in November and December 2013. Its purpose was to gauge Missouri residents’ attitudes about municipal elections and their local newspapers’ coverage of them. Some of the surveys were completed online by subscribers of our three participating newspapers — the Branson Tri-Lakes News, the Sikeston Standard Democrat and the St. Joseph News-Press — while others were conducted by telephone through random-digit dialing. We surveyed 1,235 people in all, with at least 400 coming from each of the newspapers’ readership areas.

The surveys are the first leg of a research project that also included the Down-home Democracy workshop. Representatives of each participating newspaper attended the conference and have returned to their newsrooms, where we hope they’ll ramp up their coverage of the April municipal elections by incorporating some of the ideas and strategies we shared with them. After the election, we’ll survey residents again to see whether they noticed differences in the newspapers’ coverage and whether it had any effect on their decision-making or participation in the election.

Although we received lots of results that were specific to the three newspapers, we also gleaned some data that we’re confident can be extrapolated to residents of any smaller community. Here’s a rundown of some of the most interesting and important findings:

DEMOGRAPHICS: The average age of respondents was 54.4, and 49 percent were women. On average, they had lived at their present address for 15 years, and 84 percent reported owning their own homes. Education level was pretty evenly distributed.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Ninety-five percent of the folks said they were registered to vote, and 72 percent said they cast a ballot in the April 2013 municipal election. That’s a remarkably high number, given that actual county turnout in our three communities ranged from a high of about 16 percent to a low of less than 12 percent. So, either our sample skewed heavily toward residents who are politically active, or our respondents as a group exaggerated their participation. Seven percent of our respondents said they had been a candidate for a local political office, and 30 percent said they had contributed to a political campaign. Among the latter, most reported contributing to federal and state candidates more than local candidates.

KNOWLEDGE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT: We asked a couple of simple questions to get a feel for our respondents’ basic knowledge of local politics.

Nearly one in five said they weren’t sure when we asked whether their city or town is governed by a city council or by a board of trustees or aldermen. And more than half said they didn’t know the term of office for a town council or board member or for a local school board member.

IMPORTANCE OF MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS: The results indicate that overall, people feel that elections on local bond issues or tax proposals are most important. We offered a series of statements to residents and asked them to rate them on a scale of 1 (“strongly disagree”) to 5 (“strongly agree). You can see the scores in the graphic below.

You’ll also note that residents rated school board elections as slightly more important than city council or town board elections. They were neutral on whether the outcome of local elections has more impact on them than those for state and federal offices.

In all, 83 percent of folks either agreed or strongly agreed that voting in local elections is important, and 69 percent said they try their best to stay informed about them. Just less than 70 percent agreed or strongly agreed that voting in school board and town council races is important, while 91 percent agreed or strongly agreed that voting on local bond issues and tax increases is important.

VALUE OF NEWSPAPER ELECTION COVERAGE: Our respondents indicated that the print edition of the local newspaper is the most valuable of the information sources we asked them to consider. It’s worth noting that the surveys did not seek residents’ opinions about television and radio news and advertising. Those were left out largely for the sake of brevity. You can see the scores in the graphics at left.

Conversations with other community members were second behind the newspaper, followed by political forums and newspaper web sites.

Political advertising and information that comes from candidates for the most part rated poorly. That might be good news for those of us who wringing our hands worrying that candidates will sidestep the newspaper in favor of delivering their messages directly to voters.

TYPES OF NEWSPAPER COVERAGE: The people who took our survey indicated strongly that they want substantive coverage of elections. Information about candidates’ stances on issues rated most important. See the graphic below and to the right for the scores on that and other statements. Keep in mind that these scores were rated on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being “not important at all” and 4 being “very important.”

For those of us in the newspaper business, the questions that sought residents’ assessments of various types of election reporting might prove quite useful.

The respondents indicated they favor in-depth news stories about community issues in the election, question-and-answer pieces with candidates’ verbatim responses, and charts or grids that compare candidates’ positions. Photographs ranked low. We suspect that would change if newspapers did more documentary-style election photography.

So, what’s next? Now that we’ve done the first wave of research, and we’ve held our workshop, we’ll be encouraging the Sikeston, Branson and St. Joseph papers to do their best to take these findings to heart and to improve their coverage of local elections. We hope they'll experiment with candidate profiles, with in-depth explorations of issues, with attempts to engage their readers in the election conversation. We hope they'll try bringing documentary photography into the mix, and that they'll publish a voters guide shortly before the election to synthesize their campaign coverage.

When we come back with a second survey after the April election, we hope to find that residents noticed and appreciated the newspapers’ efforts. If we can also show that better election reporting prompts more people to go to the polls, we truly will have contributed to down-home democracy.

Scott Swafford  
 
University fellow


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