MICHIGAN — It was hard. That’s how Marisa Schultz, political reporter for The Detroit News, sums up the experience of covering her first presidential campaign. Or, to put it another way: “It was the toughest professional job I’ve ever done.”
From wading through back-and-forth rhetoric to getting beyond the agenda at campaign events to finding time for deep reporting on policy issues, Schultz said she was learning along the way. “Everything was a first for me. First convention, first primary, first debate. Everything.”
Meanwhile, Rick Pluta, capitol bureau chief for Michigan Radio, has covered his share of election seasons. But as he reflects back on the 2012 campaign, his conclusion isn’t far off from Schultz’s. “It was just nonstop from January all the way through November…. That’s my biggest takeaway: never a lull.”
The two journalists recently shared their thoughts on a grueling campaign, in which Michigan—though it didn’t end up being central to the presidential swing-state calculus—was never far from the center of the action.
Pluta has been around long enough to see “generational changes” in political reporting, and along with the unceasing activity, he pointed to two other hallmarks of the recent campaign. 2012 was “the year of factchecking,” he said, and also the year that reporters got “a bit more sophisticated with how we use the Internet.” Of course, the Internet also gave rise to a new political media star this year. “There were really two people who emerged as victors in the campaign: Barack Obama and Nate Silver,” Pluta said.
From Silver’s posts at The New York Times’s FiveThirtyEight blog and other resources, like Ballotpedia and the National Council on Public Polls, Pluta learned quite a bit about identifying reliable polls and avoiding less-credible outliers—or, as he put it, steering clear of the “crap polling out there.” That approach, and a policy at his organization about “not covering polls straight up, unless they’re connected to another narrative,” helped keep political coverage at Michigan Radio focused.
It’s a lesson that extends beyond election season. As Pluta pointed out, polls are consistently used in politics by people who want to argue that the public is on their side. Tools learned by journalists during Election 2012 shouldn’t be left behind in the campaign.
There are other facets to the new emphasis on online resources. “More of us are turning to data mining than ever before,” Pluta noted. But the pace of campaign season meant he didn’t have time to develop his own data-digging skills in 2012, he said. As he eyes 2016, with its two open primaries and an open presidential race, “I need to start training for that.”
For Schultz, one of the challenges she bumped up against was navigating messages from the Obama and Romney campaigns that were not locally driven. Schultz was inundated with emails on the “issue of the day, what someone said,” typically from a national point-of-view. With the exception of statements about, for example, the auto industry, “it wasn’t really relevant to what I’d be covering.”
But it was no use turning to campaign organizers based in Michigan because their message was so tightly controlled. “They’d just get a statement from Chicago or Boston [where the respective presidential campaigns were based] and send it to you,” she said.
The solution? Sourcing.
“It’s important to develop sources beyond the face of the campaign, beyond spokespeople, beyond people paid to talk to the media so you can see through the clutter to what’s really going on,” she said.
“The most successful campaign stories get beyond the he said/she said of the campaign trail, and are more about diving into issues,” Schultz added. “I was oftentimes just writing the news of the day and not diving into issues.”
When I talked to her about her campaign expectations in May, Schultz spoke of her interest in “follow the money” journalism, particularly in a season of super PACs and “dark money.” She made good on that ambition, as well as her localizing mission, with coverage of the Michigan ties to Restore Our Future, a super PAC supporting Mitt Romney. (Some short pieces she did are available online, though the feature she called “one of the better stories I did,” helping both her and readers understand how campaign finance shaped Election 2012, appears to be no longer accessible.)
Schultz also recalled a key coverage decision she made when, during a campaign stop in Michigan just before the convention, Romney tossed out a joke about Obama’s birth certificate that drew cheers from the crowd.
“When I first heard that, I thought, ‘Oh, geez.’ It stood out to me and seemed newsworthy,” Schultz said. But she noticed that other reporters did not mention the joke prominently in their initial coverage. (I did too, and I criticized them for it.)
Schultz decided to highlight Romney’s joke in her event coverage, and soon faced a backlash. Critics thought she made a big deal out of nothing, arguing that Romney was just trying to play up his hometown roots—and besides, he’d already said he didn’t doubt that Obama was a citizen.
However Romney meant it, the crowd’s understanding of his comment, and the cheers it elicited, were notable. “If you asked [people in the crowd] what he meant by the joke, they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s because he has questions about his birth certificate. We do too,’” Schultz said. In the end, she “stands by [her] decision” to emphasize the joke.
But there are other stories Schultz feels she missed.
“One story I really wish I’d done is about taxes and tax policy, which became a big deal” in the campaign, Schultz said. “I wish I’d written that story from a local angle: this is what the candidates say, and here’s how their policies would affect you personally.”
As for Pluta, looking ahead he’s interested in watching how the conventional wisdom about Obama’s win is established—namely, that demographic shifts are leading to a more diverse electorate that is skeptical of the contemporary Republican vision. “I want to see how this plays out,” Pluta said. “I want to see how the parties maintain themselves or retag to that reality. The more interesting story seems to be in the Republican Party right now.”
That focus on the big picture points to another insight that Schultz will take away her first campaign: “Focus on issues and stories people will actually be interested in.”
She laughs when she puts it that way.
“It sounds so basic, but when you’re caught up in the campaign bubble, you start thinking what someone said is the news of the day,” she said. “Most people are not following [the day-to-day spats] and really, it doesn’t matter. It’s good to have people in your life with nothing to do with politics or journalism to bounce ideas off of. It helps you do better stories.”