Repaving the Trail

Campaign reporting can be terrible. Here’s how to make it better.

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.

There are opportunities to do better. The campaigns release their candidates’ schedules pretty far in advance (granted, some campaigns are better at this than others). Often, though, there’s enough time for a team in the newsroom to assemble a basic fact sheet on each stop: industry, demographics, major issues facing the town, how residents might be affected by a candidate’s policies, and so on. The point is to give reporters reliable, cogent information that they can use on deadline; resources tailored to the specific needs of the working campaign reporter.

And there’s no reason for these resources to be one-off fact sheets. News organizations might assemble and populate private internal wikis that give specific, actionable information about the people, places, and policies encountered on the campaign trail. These could be built and populated by news librarians, for those organizations that still employ news librarians; smaller news outlets could put interns on the task, or combine forces and build something together. As time-strapped trail reporters (and their editors) gain easy access to better resources, the ensuing reporting will only improve.

Reclaim your schedule. Campaign reporters spend most of their time with or around the respective candidates—and the trouble is that the candidates aren’t always newsworthy. They tend to make the same speeches over and over, and the only things that change are the settings in which those speeches are delivered. But, unfortunately, campaign reporters have little opportunity to explore the changing scenery, often because they are tethered to the campaign bus that transports them from event to event. There are upsides and downsides to bus-based reporting. If your goal is to monitor everything a given candidate says, then of course the bus is the best way to go. And, to be sure, this is a top priority for most of the publications covering the race. Political editors live in fear of not having a reporter on the scene when actual news happens—when a candidate suffers from heat stroke and lets loose a lusty “Viva Fidel,” or something like that. You don’t want to be the only outlet that misses a history-in-the-making moment. But the bus holds little appeal for reporters who aspire to more deliberate work.

I attended a candidate forum at Miami-Dade College that struck me as a prototypical bus-centric campaign event. I got there early, and was directed to a press room with tables, outlets, snacks, and a TV feed of the event. When the Romney bus arrived, the reporters poured into the holding room, put their recording devices on the table that held the television, opened their laptops, and proceeded to divide their attention between the respective screens. They listened to the speeches and plugged relevant quotes into an expedient template (“[Candidate] discussed [issue] with [interlocutors] at [location] this afternoon, hoping to appeal to [voting bloc]”)— they will be expected to file a story as soon as the event ends, and it helps speed the writing and filing process if that story conforms to a standard format. (This is exactly how sports coverage works, too.) Once the event finished, the reporters closed their computers and migrated to the next event, where they clustered at more tables and plugged more quotes into templates. This is the job that reporters have been told to do, and they do it well—they are accurate and speedy and largely professional. By nightfall, they’ve got an accurate record of what was said and done by the candidate that day, and a general sense of the candidate’s evolving skill at politicking, and they’ve come nowhere near the most relevant and interesting issues at stake.

The ceaseless time pressures of writing for the web obviously play a role here, but the bus itself is at least partially to blame. Yes, the campaign bus is useful in that it removes the need for reporters to drive themselves around regions with which they may be unfamiliar; it puts them in proximity to the candidates and, theoretically, helps them build relationships that might come in handy later on. But it also handcuffs them to the campaign, and lets the campaign set the narrative and the agenda. It’s the sort of access that makes for bland, indistinguishable content. The campaigns aren’t chauffeuring journalists around out of charity; they’re doing so because having reporters in close proximity makes it easier to control/influence them.

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.

Small steps will begin to give reporters the resources and direction they need to transform trail reporting into a more issue-centric vocation, one that serves and focuses on ordinary people, rather than politicians and their adherents; one that covers politics as a means toward a substantive end, rather than an end in itself; one that leaves behind the endless dull assessments of who is leading, who is trailing, and who will eventually win. We’ll find out who’s going to win when November rolls around; until then, polling does a much better job of answering those questions than do on-the-ground reporters. Why waste their time doubling up on stories that are already being done better elsewhere?

This isn’t just a good-journalism issue; it should be a practical issue, too. There is, at a basic level, a reason to cover stump speeches. It’s helpful for people to know what politicians are saying—not just in an “accountability” way, but also because, in their speeches, the politicians are conveying information about what they stand for. Even in a pseudo-event that offers little to no policy substance, there’s signaling going on, and signaling can guide voter choice.

But there is no good reason for modern-day news outlets to make stump speeches the primary focus of their campaign coverage. On a strictly competitive level, it makes no sense for a site to offer the exact same thing that every other site offers. News outlets around the world are scrambling for ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors, to convince a skeptical reader to click on their link rather than someone else’s. The best way to build a dedicated following for your publication is to offer something that your competitors don’t have. Everyone has rote, by-the-book campaign reporting. But you can differentiate yourself by getting off the trail and doing something different. Let the wire services report on the speeches and the hand-shaking. Send your reporters off to do things that your readers can’t get anywhere else.

Though Super Tuesday is over and done with, the race for the GOP presidential nomination continues. The longer the campaign lasts, the more frantic it will become for the media; the campaign stops will continue to spread out, the rhetoric will continue to heighten. The bad habits formed during primary season will, if anything, only get worse in the runup to the November general election. Let’s try to fix them before it’s too late.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: , , , , ,