Political Reporters Must Be “Good Tour Guides”

A Denver Post column takes readers into the weeds

COLORADO — “Inside baseball” is a term journalists sometimes toss out when they’re deciding if an idea is story-worthy.

“Is it too inside baseball?” a reporter will ask her editor, shorthand for “Is this topic so complicated, arcane or filled with boring minutiae that readers will bail before the first verb?”

As the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination picks up speed—as more than one Republican hopeful goes down swinging and as media coverage intensifies—it’s a question journalists should ask themselves daily.

National Public Radio media correspondent David Folkenflik made this timely point in his “News Tip” segment on Sunday when he reminded political journalists not to let too many stats ruin the game for fans.

Folkenflik illustrated his point with a tough-to-follow exchange between CNN political pros John King and Wolf Blitzer on the night of the GOP caucus in Iowa. King and Blitzer were trying to explain the confusion over the reporting of vote totals in Clinton County, in real time. And while the two correspondents probably understood each other’s political patois perfectly, it’s safe to say many viewers did not.

“It’s almost like listening to dolphins talk to each other,” Folkenflik said.

Then, using a travel analogy, Folkenflik contrasted the world of average voters to that of campaign reporters steeped—for going on a year already—in the daily, hourly doings of the candidates.

“Most people are visitors to the land of political obsession, not full-time residents,” Folkenflik said. They look to reporters, then, to distill and to deliver what’s important, and reporters aren’t “always giving a sense of how important each development is.”

He continued:

If you go abroad, you know you want a good tour guide who tells you where the locals go for a beer or where to watch the sunset. But you don’t want somebody who’s going to tell you what the fights are about local parking ordinances.

And for those who want the nitty-gritty details of politics, Folkenflik pointed out, relevant blogs and Twitter feeds are plentiful.

A later read of Sunday’s Denver Post brought Folkenflik’s point home.

Specifically, the second half of a two-part column on the op-ed page by the Post’s editorial page editor, Curtis Hubbard, headlined “Political games in the new year.” Here, a seemingly important issue was raised—whether it’s wise for Colorado Democrats to allow their top two statehouse leaders to run for Congress this season, since it opens them up to charges the leaders are more interested in garnering headlines and votes than in doing the job they were elected to do. (One of the two, Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, has since stepped down as House minority leader.) Hubbard appropriately sought and included the Democratic Senate president’s response on the matter.

But unless a reader had followed Colorado politics very closely in the past month, and had been a faithful follower of the Post’s political blog, he’d find himself fairly deep in weeds halfway though the column.

At least my husband did.

My husband reads the newspaper most days, but he was unable—or, at least, unwilling—to expend the effort to connect the dots in this column, which rolled into a few short paragraphs references to a proposed audit of Colorado’s online schools, charges of grandstanding leveled by GOP lawmakers against the Democratic Senate president, and an earlier Post editorial opining that GOP lawmakers had been obstructionists but that the Democrats might be asking for trouble because two of their leaders were running for federal office.

The column tackled some big issues, but in a very small space—perhaps too small.

Reporters here in Colorado and beyond would do well to remember Folkenflik’s “news tip” when writing about political contests statewide or federal: Don’t forget the many visitors to the land of political preoccupation.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.