In January, I visited New Hampshire and Florida to report on the media coverage of the GOP presidential primaries there. A lot of people complain about the blandness and inadequacy of much campaign reporting—its focus on momentum and appearances; its superficiality; its consistent elevation of rhetorical missteps into Big Deals. (“Our lead story this evening: Day Eleven of RomneyLikesToFirePeople-Gate.”) After a few days on the trail, I began to understand why horse race coverage predominates. The trail is centered around photo ops and pseudo-events, their speed and frequency designed to let the candidates dictate the political narrative’s framing. The ensuing coverage is too predictive and too predictable. And it’s not entirely the reporters’ fault. They are given their assignments by an editor, and the velocity of the reporting process leaves them little opportunity for creative interpretation.
Can the process be fixed? It’s a familiar question at CJR and places like it, and, unfortunately, many of the answers that we offer have little grounding in reality. Reporters aren’t going to be pulled off the hamster wheel. News outlets aren’t going to magically add more jobs, or stop covering politics as politics.
So, OK, assume that journos can’t get off the wheel. Here are some relatively simple ideas that might help make their exertions more fruitful. These are small, feasible steps toward a broader rethinking of deadline-driven campaign reporting as a vocation that values context and nuance as much as speed and ubiquity. These suggestions are primarily geared toward full-time traveling campaign reporters, their editors, and those journalists who hop on the trail whenever a candidate comes to their home state. In future pieces, I’ll talk about ways that desk-bound political reporters can raise their games.
Know more about your surroundings. Presidential politics is a national game, true, but one that has real-world local consequences. One of the problems with campaign reporting is that one town blends into the next, and the reporter never really knows very much about any given stop, other than how far it is from the highway. I remember arriving early to a Rick Santorum town hall in Somersworth, New Hampshire, watching voters file in, and talking to none of them, because I couldn’t think of any questions better than “Who are you voting for?”
Even when reporters make a better effort to take note of local conditions, the results can be underwhelming. In a March 1 piece titled “In Washington state, Rick Santorum relies on religious voters,” for instance, Politico reported on a campaign rally at a church in Spokane. Yet all the article said about Spokane was that it was “the hub of the inland Northwest. Near the border with Idaho, the city of two-hundred thousand is almost 300 miles east of Seattle,” and that “the further east you travel in Washington, the more conservative the voters become.” That’s some context—we know we’re squarely within “Red America”—but it’s pretty thin, and it presents “religious voters” as if they were a monolithic national bloc, rather than individual citizens whose interests and issues often vary based on denomination and geographical location. This isn’t to pick on that particular Politico piece; it’s just to note that the regions through which the candidates travel are too often sketched with broad strokes, rather than with the finer detail that professional reporters ought to be able to muster. A national political story will almost always be improved if it takes the time to acknowledge that, as the saying goes, all politics is local.
If reporters knew more about stops on the route and the particular issues affecting their residents, their reporting might be more specific and more fruitful. That might mean flagging tensions between a candidate’s agenda and a location’s history. It mean asking deeper and more intelligent questions. Or it might just mean adding nuance and context to the reporter’s account of what was said.
Build better research tools. So how can reporters learn more about the places the campaign takes them? At that Santorum stop, I might have checked the Somersworth Wikipedia entry, which has a lot to say about the town’s history and various school district fire code violations, and that would’ve given me something. (“What do you think of Rick Santorum’s position on fire codes?”) Lots of campaign reporters tend to consult Wikipedia while writing or researching their stories. But as anyone who has ever used it knows, while Wikipedia is great, its entries are often unfocused and incomplete; they exist to edify a marginally curious generalist, not to improve the work of a reporter charged with performing a specific task.