Taking Issue With Campaign Coverage

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, February 17, 2008

Readers are super-sensitive to any perceived slight to their favorite candidate -- from Page 1 display to photos to the details of graphics. And they want guidance from The Post in issues coverage and editorial endorsements before they vote.

Several readers were unhappy that on last Sunday's front page, Sen. Barack Obama's Feb. 9 primary victories were played below a story on the Washington Redskins naming Jim Zorn as head coach. Saadia Mahmud of the District wrote: "I've heard the argument that The Post tries to be a local paper. . . . In this case, local also looks provincial, insular and narrow-minded."

Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, assistant managing editor for Sports, is in charge of the Sunday paper. He said, "The stunning nature of the Redskins hire, the fact that it was a complete surprise, to me made it a more compelling story. Plus, we have been leading A1 with politics just about every week, and this was a nice change of pace." Good point, but Obama's multiple wins also could have gotten better display.

Others asked why the lead story Monday emphasized the news that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was changing campaign managers and featured a large, upbeat photo of her campaigning. Obama's victory in the Maine caucuses was relegated to a secondary headline and photo. Ed Thiede, assistant managing editor-news desk, supervises Page 1 design. "Replacing a campaign manager at this stage in the race is bigger news, to me, than winning one caucus. The pictures were a simple decision to play Clinton larger on Monday because we played Obama larger on Sunday. We want to be fair to the candidates in our visual choices." Agreed.

Wednesday's front page featured a large picture of Obama above the fold and a much smaller picture of Sen. John McCain below the fold. Three journalists, not from The Post, wrote: "What were editors thinking about last night when it came to photo choices?" They thought that the "huge, flattering photo of Obama" over "a tiny picture of McCain" gave "conservatives yet more ammo to accuse journalists in general of having a clear liberal/Dem bias."

Thiede said, "The closeness of the Democratic race makes that the newsier of the pieces. Also, it was a very strong photo -- a candidate out in public interacting with residents in our city on Election Day. That alone was a different image than most of these contests have given us -- a candidate on stage surrounded by supporters declaring victory. The McCain photo came in very late, on deadline. It, too, was a good image and there was debate about playing it larger on the page. We decided the Obama photo was better. We hurried to get McCain in, and we were comfortable that we were giving it decent play."

McCain's photo was so small that it conveyed the notion that his victory was not as important as Obama's. It wouldn't have been easy, but the Obama photo could have been cropped or downsized and both of them put above the fold.

One day's photo choice does not mean much, but so many readers mentioned Page 1 photos that my assistant Jean Hwang and I looked at two months' worth of images. Between Dec. 16 and Friday, Obama was on the front page 16 times; Clinton, 13; McCain, 12; Mitt Romney, 7; Rudolph Giuliani, 4; and Mike Huckabee, 2. John Edwards and Fred Thompson appeared on the front page only when they pulled out of the race. Democrats were on the front page 29 times, including two photos of Bill Clinton, and Republicans, 25 times. The difference is small but noticeable. We will continue to monitor it.

Joyce Rains of Bethesda and other readers wanted editorial endorsements of presidential candidates in the local primaries. Rains wrote: "I think this is a terrible omission. Is The Post afraid to take a stand?" Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor, said: "We have not endorsed in past presidential primaries and felt there was not a compelling reason -- such as one Democratic candidate we overwhelmingly preferred -- to do so on this occasion. We did publish a long editorial three Sundays ago outlining the pluses and minuses of the Democratic candidates and making clear that on the Republican side, we believed McCain was superior to the rest."

Reader Tammy Kimes of Laurel complained that there had been almost no coverage of the underlying issues before the local primaries. "I am frustrated with the news coverage. We are having our primary in a week, and all the news coverage is about who is winning what. It just seems totally focused on election strategies and very little about what each candidate stands for."

The coverage of Super Tuesday and the Potomac Primary was a model of good planning, reporting and design. But issues coverage has been slighted since the campaign started. Almost the only issues coverage before the local primaries was on voting day. Too little and too late, especially for those Democrats struggling to decide between Obama and Clinton.

Hwang and I have been keeping track since mid-November of Post political stories on a spreadsheet that is available here. The most important findings are that there have been 104 issues stories and 60 stories on voters, compared with 319 "horse race" stories. The figures for issues stories reflect every debate, even if the stories were not that issues-oriented.

Numbers don't tell you everything; horse-race stories can be fascinating and give you a good insight into a candidate's character. But hard-nosed journalistic comparisons of candidates' stands on the issues give readers what they need to know.

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

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