By: Joe Strupp
For Florida’s newspapers, the big Election Day story may not be who wins the presidential vote but who in Florida is allowed to vote — or not vote — and how the press is allowed to cover it.
While the Sunshine State’s dailies are readying reporters, photographers, and editors to oversee the Kerry-Bush battle as well as the race for Florida’s open U.S. Senate seat, just as many resources are being assigned to the voting process, editors say. From complaints about long lines at early voting locations to likely challenges of voters and outright fraud, newsrooms are already on the process story, which editors say dwarfs its importance four years ago.
At the St. Petersburg Times, for example, Executive Editor Neil Brown has formed a 12-person election-process team. “We have reporters in all seven offices, including Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., writing stories on the issue,” he told E&P. “Everybody is on it and looking for those stories. In some ways, the recount is already underway.”
In addition, several editors are prepping their reporters and photographers for the expected access restrictions that have already resulted in one freelance photographer for The Washington Post and The New York Times being punched and arrested by a sheriff’s deputy Sunday for taking photos of people waiting to cast ballots.
“They need to know what their rights are,” Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, said about news staffers. “We don’t want people getting arrested.”
Rosenhause took the first step to avoiding problems when she distributed pre-printed information cards to all reporters Friday advising them of the different press-access rules for Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties. For instance, only one of those counties, Palm Beach, allows the press to be inside polling locations, while the other two keep them out. Each has different rules for observing the vote counting as well, she said.
The Sun-Sentinel also will have two attorneys in its offices Tuesday to respond to access concerns from reporters and photographers, including a Tribune Company lawyer who flew in Monday for the assignment. “We don’t want to be caught short,” Rosenhause said.
As concerns about access increase, other newspaper editors confirmed that they had informed newsroom employees of the rights of the press. “We are briefing reporters on what the rules are,” said Frank Denton, editor of The Tampa Tribune. “We don’t want anyone getting punched.” At the St. Petersburg Times, where at least one-third of the 50 reporters covering Election Day issues are on the process stories, editors held special sessions with reporters to train them on access rules.
Voter issues began sparking stories two weeks ago when the state’s early voting started. Reports of people waiting in line up to seven hours have been running almost daily.
“Everyone has been surprised at the volume of early voting, so we have had a lot of people at the polls and a story on it each day for the past week,” said Charlotte Hall, editor of the Orlando Sentinel. “Almost all of the local news staff is involved in election coverage and early voting has crept into all of our bureaus.”
After the 2000 recount mess, Sentinel editors knew this year’s election would require more scrutiny of the voter process, so they created a five-person team last summer to handle just those issues. Still, Hall said the growing focus on early voting and preparations for other issues as the week continues have caused some staffers to be pulled off of other assignments. A writer who covers highway problems “has had to go on election stories,” Hall said. “We also had a sports writer involved in an enterprise piece.”
The Sun-Sentinel will have more than 100 staffers covering all aspects of Election Night, with an undisclosed number specifically on the process stories, including a “legal issues and challenges team,” Rosenhause said. Dozens of reporters and photographers plan to visit polling places throughout the day, including those in predominantly minority areas and closely divided neighborhoods that are believed to be ripe for challenges. “We believe they will be contentious places,” Rosenhause said.
The paper also has been running a box for two weeks asking readers to submit examples of voting problems — which has drawn 800 calls and 500 e-mails so far.
At The Tampa Tribune, editors are asking voters to e-mail in complaints and they have space already set aside for a Page One voting-process story on Wednesday, Denton said. “That is something we would not have done four years ago,” he added. “But the process is much more important now.”
Hall added that editors are ready for the potential recount and extended vote-counting stories. “You have to assume the worst — that you won’t have a headline [on Wednesday] that says who is president,” she said. “We are already planning what to do if it is not decided. And we are ready to send people to Ohio if that turns out to be the Florida of 2004.”