What Do Ohioans Want from Their Media?

Follow the money. Check the facts. And grow a pair.

OHIO — As the GOP presidential primary extravaganza continues to roll along, disenchantment has infected some observers—a.k.a., the voters.

With the Ohio press ramping up campaign coverage in anticipation of the state’s March 6 primary, I thought it would be interesting to ask some people here what the state’s journalists are doing right, and how they might improve coverage. So I blasted out some questions on email, Facebook, and Twitter. Specifically, I asked:

• What do you want to learn about the candidates and/or their campaigns?

• How does the press rate for digging deep into attack ads, and what can reporters do to help you sort out truth from fiction?

• Any suggestions on how the press can improve campaign coverage?

Even within the circle of this veteran journalist, not everybody was eager for more politics news. “I don’t think there is any positive outcome to covering the candidates,” replied Leisa Clymer, a Columbus psychologist and author. “… They are all sleeping in the same bed, and political ‘sides’ are as pointless and meaningless as WWF professional wrestling matches.”

But that sort of cynicism was in the minority. (And actually, other than Stephen Colbert’s video spoof of Newt Gingrich feasting “on the flesh” of CNN newsman John King, we haven’t actually seen any fake violence or blood. Yet.)

I received 22 responses in all, including six from former journalists, many of which offered constructive criticism. And though my crowd-sourcing experiment was hardly a scientific or random survey—a recent poll found voters in the dark about simple facts regarding the GOP candidates, while many of my respondents follow the news fairly closely—it might hold some insights for the Ohio press about what their readers and viewers want.

Some responses were lengthy, others short, but clear patterns emerged. Many of the people I heard from want reporters to probe deeper into the money trail: Who bankrolls the campaigns, who are the people and organizations behind super PACS, and what are politicians/candidates doing in return for all that loot?

“If you take money from someone, then you condone and support whatever it is that that person does. That tells me more about a candidate than anything,” said Julie DuSablon, a Columbus book editor. “I love the recent idea floating around that candidates should wear sponsor clothing like NASCAR drivers do.”

There was also a steady demand for fact-checking and ad watch stories, though my
crowd was divided on how good of a job the media does in that area.

“I especially like the ‘attack ad analyses’ that some newspapers print,” said Vince Volpi, CEO of a global business-consulting firm. “Newspapers… have an extra-constitutional duty to educate and report, not influence.”

A long-time former Ohio reporter, Tim Miller, said journalists have done an increasingly good job “of digging into the attack ads.”

While such ads are “somewhat destructive… we do, at times, get better information about a candidate’s track record when the media dive down into the truth behind such accusations,” Miller said. “For example, the Gingrich attack on Mitt Romney gave the media the opportunity to take a close look at Bain Capital.” (For an example of how this process unfolded in Ohio, see this Stephen Koff post for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.)

But others said the media must work harder at digging into ads and the assertions made by politicians. A former Ohio reporter turned entrepreneur, Susan Prentice, believes today’s journalists should embrace that old chestnut—if your mother tells you she loves you, check it.

“The news organizations would do well to remember that and check everything that comes out of a candidate’s mouth,” Prentice said. “Most people don’t do a lot of fact-checking on their own, and they tend to believe whoever shouts the loudest.”

Another respondent longed for a political fact-checking site like Snopes.com, “to confirm or refute campaign ‘truths.’”

Interestingly, given the demand for fact-checking, many of my respondents seemed to be unaware that we have a site like that in the Buckeye State—Politifact Ohio, a partnership of The Plain Dealer of Cleveland and PolitiFact.com. On the site, PD reporters and researchers rate the accuracy of candidates’ and politicians’ statements on a Truth-O-Meter. The states’ other newspapers don’t carry those stories, though many do run ad watch features.

Many in the crowd pleaded with the media to focus on issue-based coverage, with some arguing that the candidates’ personal lives get too much attention. “Just let me know the facts on things that are relevant to leading this country,” said Bonnie Watson, an investment analyst. “Personal lifestyles are personal and not material for debates or decisions.” And John Mason, a psychologist, said there is “too much effort made on Newt’s sex life as opposed to challenging ideas, such as firing school janitors and making the inner city kids do the work.”

Joe Smith, a former radio journalist who now works in marketing, said policy coverage can be obscured as the press agenda gets set by campaign events such as debates, or by the campaigns themselves. “The great contributors to news coverage, like H.L. Mencken, David Broder, Don Hewitt, were great because they sat back in their chairs, rubbed their chins, and said to themselves, ‘I think there are more important issues to cover than what’s in this campaign news release,’” he said.

And Paul Long, a former reporter now living in Northern Kentucky outside of Cincinnati, had a unique suggestion for a way the press might push back—adopting the message-of-the-day tactic used by candidates, only with a twist.

“Perhaps the press corps should get together and have a ‘question of the day’ that a candidate must answer satisfactorily,” he said.

And Hank Wilson, a journalist-turned-university communications director who still identifies with his former colleagues in the press, called for a more confident, aggressive media.

“I really want the press to get back to their role as the people that call out folks for lying and exaggerating the truth,” Wilson said. “Fight back when a blowhard like Gingrich attacks us and point out that he is not answering the questions. Really, I want us to grow a pair.”

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.