Spangler’s reportorial wish-list also includes more staff time and money to pursue investigations that may not have clear stories waiting at the end of them: using computer-driven research to pore over Romney’s tax return, for example, or Obama’s campaign finance reports and see “who’s linked to what, who’s getting what.”
About those polls: the surveys are increasingly expensive, but when news organizations commission them, they know they’re guaranteed at least one front-page story, Spangler said. But if one or more reporters spend a month doing nothing but tracking, say, candidate connections to corporate investments, their editors don’t know if there will be a story in it at all. It’s a big risk for news organizations to take, even though the most revelatory stories emerge that way.
“It’d be great to have the people to do that (kind of reporting),” Spangler said. “But very few organizations in the country can really do it. Here in Washington, you have Politico and the Post, and even they are limited. If you’re a political junkie, you read Politico constantly because they hit every blurb, but they don’t always make the links to bigger stories. Even the [New York]) Times has to make hard decisions on where to spend their resources. So you can imagine how the Free Press does too.”
Because of that risk, reporters that do pursue open-ended investigations might feel pressured to inflate a story beyond its significance in order to justify the expense. But, Spangler said, “it’s the reporter’s job, and the editor’s job, to be honest about what you’ve got and not to overblow it, even though there’s always pressure there to get the biggest bang for your buck.”
The economy, and beyond
Spangler is particularly interested in how Obama’s portrayal of the government loans to the auto industry will play with Michigan voters. When I spoke with him during the week that Romney began to argue that he deserves a share of the creditfor the revival of the auto industry, Spangler said that he is “relatively certain” that Romney will put a lot of campaign resources into Michigan—“if nothing else than to force Obama to spend money there.”
But while the campaign coverage is likely to focus on the auto bailout loans and other economic priorities, Pluta said he worries about other issues being crowded out. He knows his listeners want the crucial news about jobs and recovery, Pluta said, but they also will be uniquely impacted by presidential policies on agriculture and the environment, particularly the Asian carp, a destructive invasive species in the Great Lakes. In past elections, news organizations put together packages that had a comparative focus on candidate stances on a range of issues. But “in 2008, 2010, and in 2012, it’s been all the economy, all the time,” Pluta said.
How ordinary people and checking the rhetoric go together
There was a common theme in every conversation I had: trying to connect the sometimes abstract or impenetrable world of politics to regular readers and listeners. “What’s frustrating to readers, said Jeff Taylor, political senior managing editor of the Free Press, “is when they don’t have the kind of real public dialogue with candidates getting past that is at the core of our job.”
Schultz said she tries to push her coverage “beyond the news of the days” by connecting national stories with local voices—a tactic that, she said, helps “humanize the story” and go beyond “the policy discussion and rhetoric.” And Spangler said that if he had the resources, he’d do more traveling, talking to voters in the Upper Peninsula, say, and Battle Creek, to see how policies are impacting their lives.
Klinefelter works, almost literally, to create that dialogue. He said he likes to take what candidates and politicians say and put it before “real-life people.”
“Because of how TV works, people will be interviewed with the light and camera and be thinking ‘I’m on TV’ they change totally,” he said. “But I come up to the same person with my little [radio] mic, and it’s a totally different thing. I get really honest, interesting opinions on, for example, if a foreclosure policy will really be helpful to them.”
Those efforts don’t just make the news more accessible; they also help journalists hold politicians accountable and keep the debate honest.
Schultz warned against falling into the “he said, she said” trap. “When on deadline, it’s easy to get reaction from the other side in response to a political attack or negative ad, but it takes more time to dig into the issue, (and) research the record and facts,” she said.