Great journalism needed during election season

Thursday, January 24, 2008

By Jason Salzman - Minutemanmedia.org

We're heading into the thick of the election season, and we're relying on journalists to inform us about the candidates and issues involved.

Here's what we ask of them: Polls. First, please, don't waste your money on excessive polling, especially in the early going before the candidates' positions have become known. Spend your money researching and explaining what the candidates stand for. Dig deep and find information that will help us compare the candidates, rather than telling us who's ahead of whom this week.

Fund-raising. Next, refrain from dedicating too much space to the candidates' fund-raising programs. There's a temptation in journalism to present gobs of information about how much the candidates are raising, and stories often run every single time a fund-raising report is due.

Sure, fund-raising is a measure of how likely a candidate is to succeed. But it's more important to tell us where a candidate stands on the issues rather than how rich he or she is.

If journalists do get into the fund-raising details, as they should on occasion, be sure to tell us where the candidates' money is coming from (e.g., defense industry, big tobacco, etc.), not just how much has been raised. As many a good journalist likes to say, follow the money.

TV ads. It's also really important, given the power of television and its prominent place in political campaigns, to fact-check advertisements. Tell us which assertions are true and which are false. And which ones are squishy. Explain why candidates might be choosing the topics and types of ads that they are airing.

Targeting. Most candidates spend the bulk of their money targeting specific geographic areas and demographic groups. Make sure that we're informed about where and whom the candidates are targeting, and their "messages" for each target. And be sure to tell us how these messages square with their past positions and voting records.

Political imagery. Political candidates understand that imagery can easily trump words. That's why they bounce from photo op to photo op in their campaign travels.

They hope to land on TV news, get a photo in the newspaper, and move on. To get the maximum benefit from these hops, they stage theatrical events designed to create imagery that will meet the approval of their target audience. That's why so many candidates are seen with everyday people in diners or schools.

Reporters should explain why candidates choose the locations of their photo ops.

If candidates do not take questions at a particular media event, journalists should let us know.

Political celebrities. Local news outlets, particularly local TV news, sometimes get so star-struck by the big races, especially the presidential contest, that they ignore local politics. This means that you might see lots of coverage when the presidential candidates drop into town, but relatively little about the local ballot initiatives and state races. Local journalists should make a point to cover local political campaigns with a vengeance.

Political debates. In this era where political spectacles reign supreme, journalists need to resist the temptation to ignore or downplay big speeches, such as those we'll see at the party conventions, or candidate debates. These events nurture our political culture, and they should be given priority coverage.

These are all modest expectations of the news media. Even so, it will be tough for journalists to meet them, given the pressure they are under from media owners to entertain rather than inform.

But in the long term, as we all know, we'll all be better off, media companies and our country alike, if the press puts its highest standards of professional journalism to work during the election season.

Jason Salzman is the author of "Making the News: A Guide for Nonprofits and Activists," and board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based media watchdog organization.