Sizing Up the Politics Coverage

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 11, 2007

A new president will be elected a year from now. Voters will look to the mainstream media, to alternative bloggers and to the candidates' Web sites to help decide who that president will be.

A perennial complaint is that the media cover politics too much as a horse race instead of reporting more on the candidates' backgrounds, where they stand on issues and how they would lead the nation. But is it true? I intend to find out -- at least at The Post -- and report back to readers.

That issue is a large part of a content-analysis study released Oct. 29 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. On the basis of a look at early coverage (only the first five months of 2007), the study said the media have "offered Americans relatively little information about [the candidates'] records or what they would do if elected." The study, which covered all aspects of the news media, said that 63 percent of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign, nearly four times more than the number of stories (17 percent) about the personal backgrounds of the candidates or about their policy proposals (15 percent).

The study did not single out any news medium, and Executive Editor Len Downie said he doesn't think the study's broad conclusions necessarily apply to The Post because the analysis of The Post was done only every other day, dealt only with front-page stories and took place "well before anyone's coverage was in high gear." He also thinks the horse-race complaint is overblown.

PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel, a former Los Angeles Times political reporter and author of a book on the news media and campaigning, believes coverage is slanted toward the horse-race aspects because reporters need to have new daily stories and major sources tend to be campaign pollsters, strategists and consultants.

Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics, says that "strategy and tactics are serious subjects to us" and that The Post also plans extensive coverage of the candidates' backgrounds and issues. The Post's coverage plan, set out by Hamilton and Susan Glasser, assistant managing editor for national news, has several objectives, including introducing candidates through key moments or issues that would be important to the campaign (such as Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's common roots with Saul Alinsky, the Chicago community organizer), reporting how money is raised and spent, and developing new content for the Internet such as The Trail campaign blog and The Fact Checker by Michael Dobbs, who awards "Pinocchios" to candidates who don't get it right.

Because The Post is "the home-town newspaper of the politics industry, we wanted to focus on the people who are running national campaigns. That was the origin of our Gurus series-- to explain the art of politics and the strategic thinking behind each campaign," Hamilton said.

Reporters and the candidates' entourages live in a hothouse atmosphere during the campaign. Reporters often don't have much direct access to major candidates and should have more, as editorial writer Ruth Marcus pointed out in a good column Wednesday. (The editorial page staff is writing a series of editorials on the issues called the Ideas Primary.)

Post columnist and political writer David S. Broder has counseled for decades against too much coverage of consultants. He believes they have an "inordinate amount of influence" on reporters. For instance, Broder said, "Joe Trippi [John Edwards's campaign consultant and one of the featured gurus] is only important to maybe 20 people in the world, but he's important to reporters."

Broder is a longtime advocate of coverage that focuses on voters; I am his acolyte on that. "The best tactic is to orient around the voters, not the candidates. If reporters spend enough time with voters, you find out what voters want to know," he said.

You can't just judge The Post's political coverage in print. Washingtonpost.com relaunched its political page last week. The Post has exclusive online features, extensive archives of past campaign coverage and databases on such subjects as campaign finance. Both The Trail and The Fact Checker appear more often -- and sometimes first and at greater length -- online. The Web site has a candidates section with basic personal and issue information, plus a geographical campaign tracker. Politics editor Jason Manning also plans a quiz with specific answers from candidates on the issues and a device to let readers match their views with those answers.

The Post, most often with ABC, is polling on candidates and issues almost monthly until the election; special polls will be done in key states. Post polling director Jon Cohen also helps reporters make sense of others' polling. Because of the closeness of the partisan divide, the poll of independent voters by The Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University has been especially informative.

The ombudsman, with readers' help, will monitor coverage within some qualitative boundaries and common-sense categories that readers and journalists understand. This will be done with transparency as a goal, and I hope to post it in some way on the Web with periodic reports in the paper. The hallmarks will be newsworthiness, fairness and service to voters.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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