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Home > Publications > Quill > 10 Tips for Covering School Board Elections


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Thursday, September 27, 2007
10 Tips for Covering School Board Elections

Melinda Dudley, SPJ Pulliam Kilgore Intern

Experiment with new storytelling methods

Incorporating more visual storytelling elements can help keep your audience interested in the election and draw them in to your campaign coverage.

“Very few people will read a 30-inch story previewing a school board race,” said Paul Osmondson, editor of The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C. “But if newspapers break the information down into grids, bio boxes, Q&A’s, the reader is much more likely to read that.”

However, don’t let technology get in the way of the message, said Chris Slaughter, news director at WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans, La.

Generalize where necessary

Covering school elections can be complicated for metro papers because of the sheer number of school districts within their media market. During recent school elections in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, journalists were tasked with covering more than 50 districts.

“We tried to identify a few main issues or themes that were coming up across the metro area,” said Maureen McCarthy, who led the education team at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Issues coverage was designed to show the paper’s readership that their local issues, such as technology and growth, are not unique to their district.

Focus on the funding

Not everyone has schoolchildren, but everyone pays taxes — and sometimes all your audience needs is a reminder that they, too, have a stake in local schools.

“One year we did a tax calculator online that let people plug in their school district and their home value and get an estimated tax increase,” McCarthy said. “It was a lot of work, but very popular.”

Help voters get a handle on the candidates

Create a voter guide to give your community the facts about each candidate and help them discern issue positions. This is especially important in these small elections, because the local media may be voters’ only source of balanced information.

Voter’s guides at the Minneapolis Star Tribune included mug shots, endorsements, answers from a questionnaire and a brief pitch from the candidate.

If you’re in a large market, give a little extra focus to the major school districts. Give brief biographies of each candidate, including vital statistics, their top issue and something personally revealing, such as hobbies or what the candidates are reading, McCarthy said.

“While the more polished people tend to give stock, vague answers, the crazies identify themselves clearly,” McCarthy said.

Frame issues in terms of impact

“What will the impact be if a particular school levy doesn’t pass? What is the impact to the students in that school district?” said Aysu Basaran, executive producer of special projects at WBNS 10TV, the CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. “Will they have to walk to school? Will they get rid of extracurricular activities? Will property values go down in the area?

“Once you know the impact, put a face with it; personalize the story,” Basaran said. “This is a broad-appealing approach because most school districts are inundated with financial problems. So, even if you don’t live in that school district, you can still relate to the problem.”

Keep the candidates on topic

Many newsroom leaders stressed the importance of keeping coverage of school board races focused on the issues that matter most to the community.

“Reporters should identify issues of importance to readers and then make the candidates address those issues,” Osmondson said. “A school board candidate who rails against the war in Iraq really isn’t addressing the concerns local residents have about class sizes.”

Seek out the other side

“There are two sides to every story … school elections are no exception,” Basaran said. “Too often coverage of school issues tends to be one-sided, favoring the district.

“It is very easy to find a school district eager for funds to build a new building or maintain status quo. It is more difficult to find a taxpayer who is tired of footing the bill.”

All hands on deck

On Election Night, ensure that newsroom staffing is a priority and that all responsibilities have been covered. Making deadlines is critical, so be careful not to overburden any of your reporters or editors.

“We flood the zone with editors in the newsroom and pair them with reporters,” said Andy Owens, an assistant managing editor at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. “This way, everyone knows what they are responsible for and aren’t given more than they can handle, which makes the production of the news pages flow more smoothly.”

Educate your staff

Chances are, your education efforts on school elections, particularly on school funding, need to begin in your very own newsroom.

“Reporters, producers, managers need to have a basic understanding of school finance,” Basaran said. “Yes, it is boring. But if you don’t understand how schools are funded in your state, you are not going to put the story in perspective for the viewer.”

Ask tough questions and get the details

“Our goal was to identify key issues and provoke debate on them, because a lot of times the school board candidates will not,” McCarthy said.

She had reporters write stories explaining current issues, such as class sizes or site-based learning, and pointedly asking candidates what they would do about them.

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