Many reporters, to their credit, realize that this is a problem. But there’s little they can do about it, which is why it falls to their editors to ease the burden. If I were a political editor at a publication covering the campaign, I would prohibit my reporters from riding the bus. Having to drive yourself around doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up finding better stories and fresher angles; but it makes it more likely that you’ll find different stories and different angles. More generally, editors need to let their reporters set schedules that separate the reporter from the candidate at points—even if this just means more time spent with the members of the public who come out to see the candidates.
Improve your opening gambits. In Concord, New Hampshire, I talked to a woman who said she had been interviewed about ten times over the course of the week of the NH primary, and the question she was always asked was, “Who are you voting for?” I would bet that some variation on that line—or of its cousin, “What did you think of Candidate X?”—is the first part of almost every exchange between trail reporters and voters. These aren’t bad questions, per se. They’re simple and straightforward, and, if the reporter is any good, they will often lead to deeper interactions. And as the imperatives of the beat lean ever more toward urgent transcription and tweeting, you have to applaud any effort—no matter how feeble—to get out and talk to actual voters.
But by focusing on victory and electoral momentum, questions like those too often end up reinforcing the dominant horse race frame. For example, a New York Daily News blog entry from March 4 was filled with quotes and recations from voters who had attended a Romney campaign event in Cincinnati. The reporter said that she talked to 20 people, which is great; but the story read as if she only asked them variations of the two questions cited above. Readers came away from the piece having met several random people whose quotes said nothing of value or interest about the election, the candidates, and the issues at stake. The piece was a good example of an opportunity squandered. Reporters ought not to lead with questions that will prompt their interlocutors to talk about the campaign in terms of winning and losing. Instead, start with something specific, something issue-centric, maybe something that doesn’t mention the candidate at all. By avoiding the obvious questions, you’ve got a better chance of eliciting unexpected answers; material that might lead to more substantial stories.
Know more about the other candidates. Most reporters are assigned to cover specific candidates, and while they build up a wealth of knowledge about their specific candidate, they often don’t know very much about the other candidates on the trail. But they should. Candidates are always talking about themselves in relation to their competitors, and describing their plans and policies in relation to their competitors’ plans and policies. A Romney reporter who knows a lot about Rick Santorum’s background and policy proposals will be better equipped to notice whenever Romney distorts or mischaracterizes Santorum’s record, and vice versa. Better research tools would be helpful here: databases that reporters could quickly consult to verify a candidate’s past and present policy positions. But news organizations ought also to find some creative ways to incentivize reporters to broaden their knowledge base, or simply to promote information-sharing between reporters covering rival candidates. Editors, for their part, should enforce an obvious step: when copy comes in that quotes one candidate’s attack on another, the next graf should provide information that helps readers understand the merits of that attack.
Focus your Tweeting. It’s expected, at this point, for campaign reporters to use Twitter while they’re on the job, and their respective streams usually serve as repositories for scenes and commentary that might not make it into an official dispatch. Indeed, as soon as a campaign event ends, you’re likely to see most of the assembled reporters squinting into their smartphones, tweeting their real-time observations into the hungry cloud. This can be entertaining, but it more often strikes me as enervating. If you’re going to use Twitter on the job, then use it as an actual tool to improve and focus your reporting. Poll your followers about questions they’d like you to ask. Encourage them to fill in data and information about locations with which you are unfamiliar. Use it as a way to enhance your work, rather than just a dumping ground for links and zingers.