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.

Analytical research is often essential to factchecking, of course. But as attacks become “more vicious and more shallow,” attention to the lives of ordinary people can also help journalists cut through the political war of words, Pluta said.

“One thing journalism does okay at is to immediately turn attacks around,” Pluta said. “Good journalists will, after a week or so, step back and say, ‘let’s examine this.’ They get beyond the rhetoric on, say, working moms, and look at how a candidate’s policies will impact the real lives of working moms.”

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The Guardian, Grantland, and Salon; blogs at Isak; and can be found on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.