Wherein We Introduce the Eight W’s of Journalism

Campaign stories tend to be of two types: Random anecdotes gathered from “typical” voters, who utter pithy quotes that conveniently fit the reporter’s prevailing premise. Or, number-filled opuses that rely on polling data and past election returns. The first type is popular because it’s easy. The second exists because it fuels the campaign-as-horserace story line.

What makes a story memorable, however, is when the author seamlessly melds the two forms into a readable — and enlightening — piece of reporting, one that guides the reader through a thicket of useless information. Those have been rarities this season. And that’s too bad.

Today, the Orlando Sentinel concludes a four-part series examining the presidential race in Florida. It’s a subject ripe for exploration, given Florida’s status as a crucial state for both candidates, as well as the demographic changes that have taken place since 2000, which make “conventional wisdom” in the Sunshine State as solid as the sand in Key West. With good reason, both George Bush and John Kerry are frequent visitors.

The Sentinel series is ambitious in scope — full of statistics that range from home sales data to new voter registrations — and it’s loaded with quotes from Floridians of all stripes. But the series falls short of its mark. It hits the standard five W’s — who, what, when, where and why — but neglects two other W’s foremost in readers’ minds:

What Does It All Mean, and What’s It To Me?

Campaign Desk has been quick to criticize our colleagues who opt for the easy way out — talking heads vs. shoe leather — or who cover the campaign as if they’re standing at trackside. But there’s another category that deserves mention, and we hereby dub that one the Upchuck School of Journalism. That involves those reporters who merely regurgitate reams of information into the readers’ laps, and then walk away.

Leaving disappointed readers to pose the final, and fatal, W:

“Why did I waste my time?”

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.