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Home > Publications > Quill > 10 Tips for Covering City/County Elections


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Thursday, September 27, 2007
10 Tips for Covering City/County Elections

Melinda Dudley, SPJ Pulliam Kilgore Intern

Look for skeletons in the closet

The media has a wealth of public information at its disposal, especially from police and court records, that can be used to conduct background checks on candidates running for office in municipal elections.

“We do a little bit of investigative work on candidates when they announce, checking into their background as far as any legal troubles,” said Jeff Brown, news editor of The Dover Post in Delaware’s capital city.

“Specifically, reporters should determine whether a candidate has a criminal background and whether she or he has been sued or has sued someone,” said Paul Osmondson, editor of The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C.

Get your reporters out of the office

Journalists say that news rarely happens in the office, and elections are no exception. For your newsroom to be on top of election coverage and to be where the action is, reporters need to be following the campaign every step of the way.

“(Reporters) go to the parades and shoot mug shots of the candidates, dog people at city hall, become ever-present, and that way we get good profile and issue pieces in advance, as well as being on top of controversies/scandals that pop up,” said Sue Campbell, senior editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Don’t fall for the sound bites

When candidates talk about their platform or rail about what’s wrong with local and county governments, don’t let them get away with carefully crafted, broad, unclear statements; get the details.

“Most papers publish a series of campaign previews in which they ask the candidates various questions about the campaign. But we don’t push the candidates for specific things they’re going to do to address the issue,” Osmondson said.

Be a know-it-all

“My simple advice would be for a journalist to get completely educated on the candidates and issues they will cover. Do your homework before approaching them,” said Jon Killoran, news director at KRNV News 4, the NBC affiliate in Reno, Nev.

“Well-prepared journalists tend to get better stories from candidates or officials who find them credible,” Killoran said.

Seek out alternatives if you’re short on air time or pages

Only a very lucky media outlet could cover every element of a municipal election exactly how it wanted, and to the fullest extent possible. Print publications have shrinking news holes and editorial staffs, and broadcast news has to compete with prime-time programming.

But the failure of traditional news gathering and reporting methods should not eliminate coverage; newsrooms must seek out alternative methods for informing their audience.

If your network does not want to give up air time for candidate debates, present them as live streaming video on your Web site, said Chris Slaughter, news director at WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans.

For broadcast stations, if you cannot pre-empt regular primetime programming for election coverage, try putting election returns and updates across the bottom of the screen, in scrolling tickers or graphics, Slaughter said.

Scour candidates’ filing forms

After the deadline to file for candidacy in municipal elections, acquire copies of the candidate filing forms and double-check all the information for any notable discrepancies.

“Check the place of residence for each candidate to determine if they actually reside in the ward, district, township or zone they hope to serve,” said Larry Fugate, editor of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial.

“Using the same information from their filing forms, check the delinquent personal and ad valorem (property) tax records to determine if they are delinquent in paying their state and local taxes,” he said. “You will probably get lucky on each election cycle and find a good story.”

Be a familiar face

Election reporters would do well to remember the age-old lessons on beat development, especially getting to know your sources.

“Today’s reporters simply don’t do enough schmoozing,” said Larry Phillips, local editor of the Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal. And it isn’t necessarily all the reporter’s fault, Phillips said, citing time constraints and increased expectations for story output as contributing causes.

“No one trusts someone they don’t know,” Phillips said. “Getting to know key sources, departmental secretaries, office managers, etc., is absolutely vital.”

Create visual tools for issue positions

Grids comparing candidates’ positions on the burning issues are a great replacement for standard election fare.

“What your readers will get is a pithy, easy-to-digest comparison of candidates,” said Alasdair Stewart, city editor of the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin. “What they won’t get is 27 inches of ‘I’m running for this seat on the Zoning Board of Adjustment because I want to give back to this community that has given me so much.’”

In determining what the hot-button issues are for any given race, be sure to include the input of a variety of sources.

“Ask readers, ask candidates, ask the people who sit on the commission or board who aren’t running in this election,” Stewart said.

Use local analysts to frame issues

For analysis in municipal races, draw on local experts who understand all the nuances of your community and how to best communicate with your audience, instead of anonymous talking heads with no ties to your coverage area.

“Get a good analyst and use him or her often, and ask them tough, challenging questions,” said Slaughter of WWL-TV in New Orleans. Invite your audience to participate in your discussions by soliciting questions on your Web site.

“Tip O’Neill was right … all politics is local,” Slaughter said.

Don’t be afraid to have a little fun

“You can capture readers’ interests by doing fun facts about the candidates,” Osmondson said. “For example: The last book read. Details about their first car. Hobbies. Heroes. Favorite movie. Favorite book.”

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