By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ
IT SEEMS AS though each presidential election brings complaints about how the campaigns were covered and promises to do things differently next time.
Four years ago, a handful of media outlets, notably the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, began experimenting with a process called civic journalism. The basic idea was to bring citizens into the process, making the reporting in print and on broadcast media more relevant to their lives.
While civic journalism has more than its share of critics, many of the principles it espoused, perhaps more radically four years ago than it does today, are being incorporated into this year’s coverage.
During a recent weekend-long retreat in Reston, Va., hosted by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Nieman Foundation, political journalists discussed their own coverage and the future of election reporting.
Cleveland Plain Dealer editor David Hall, for example, said he has been “fiercely ambivalent” about the notion of civic journalism, noting that “what we’re talking about is improving the quality of our reporting. Call it what you want.
“We’ve gotten some good from our venture,” he said of the Plain Dealer’s project with local TV and public radio stations.
The core of the Cleveland project was a series of polls, but Hall explained, “We try to do polling not just to publish the results. We try to get information to do reporting better.”
While Hall said news staffers figured they would see welfare, crime, and the economy surface as issues of concern to citizens, they were surprised to see that the public also was interested in civility and the worth of the candidates.
“I think this has had an impact on how we conduct some of our reporting,” he added.
Once the election is over, Hall said the paper will evaluate the project, and while he did not know if it would do it again, he did say it yielded “more substantive and thoughtful reporting.”
“It will take a great deal of effort to continue,”
At the Orange County Register, government and politics team leader Joe Ames explained, a poll helped identify the three main issues of concern to voters: economic security/jobs; education; and taxes and the deficit.
Story packages featuring the candidates’ policies and positions on these issues gave the paper “a lot of substance in the midst of conventions that had little news,” Ames said, explaining that the Register gave these topics a page each day during the Republican and Democratic conventions.
The paper also hosted a series of “citizens’ juries,” featuring 10 to 12 people on various sides of issues talking to each other.
“If we’re going to tap into what citizens think about, we have to give them the power and let them speak,” he said, noting that taking it out of journalists’ hands does raise questions about who’s setting the agenda.
“We’re not abrogating the reporter’s responsibility. In some instances, we’re giving more authority to citizens,” Ames said.
“How you frame the issue and what you report is what this is about,” he noted. “It’s not for prizes, it’s for changing coverage.”
Tara Murphy, coordinator of the People’s Voice project at WBUR-FM in Boston, explained that her station’s project with the Boston Globe helped them to tap into the difficult-to-cover citizens’ agenda and its ambiguities early on.
Although candidate participation was sometimes difficult to secure, Murphy said that stories about the series of citizens’ forums were well received.
“People were pleased to see their agenda represented,” she said. “They wanted to see how the candidates would address them.”
The “biggest difficulty now,” however, is to meld the People’s Voice reporting into the regular election coverage so that it becomes a “more integral, important, and accepted part of our reporting,” Murphy added.
In a written evaluation of the Boston project, Murphy reported that the public responded well to this kind of reporting and that reporters “felt that the poll and the discussion groups organized as part of the project were powerful reporting tools that significantly improved their coverage of the New Hampshire primary.”
Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Group in Washington, urged media companies participating in these projects not to focus only on voters, but to include nonvoters in the mix as well.
In his comments to the group, Harwood noted that “if things continue down the current path to the election, we will be missing important issues and the absolute essence of people’s concerns.
“In their place, the candidates are creating the illusion they are dealing with people’s concerns,” he added. “Both candidates are missing a historic opportunity to lead America through a period of change.”
For example, Harwood said that by promising tax cuts, both President Clinton and Bob Dole are “creating the illusion they are dealing with the deep, deep changes in the economy,” a promise he likened to “hush money.”
“If you can’t get your concerns addressed, here’s some hush money,” he said, pointing out, however, that “people feel the economy is pulling them under.”
In addition, Harwood noted that it is unfortunate, but the candidates “are playing to eke out a win, rather than to lead. If they did lead, they would find a deeply torn but receptive public yearning for new leadership. This campaign is the antidote to that.”
In his report for the Pew Center’s Citizens Election Project, “America’s Struggle Within,” Harwood also found that people also are discontent with the media and are simply turning away in frustration (E&P, Feb. 24, p. 11).
Campaign Study Group president Dwight Morris conducted a study called “No Show ’96” for Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and WTTW in Chicago. As the name implies, the report looked at nonvoters.
Among its findings, the report found that more than a quarter of nonvoters read a newspaper nearly every day and about half watch a tv news program about as frequently. Further, 44% read newsmagazines and 72% watch newsmagazine shows on television.
Morris explained that in the roughly two-and-a-half months until the election, the candidates likely will spend about $60 million to $70 million on advertising in an attempt to reach the approximately 11% of undecided voters.
“It’s no surprise that the candidates are not talking about broad-based issues,” he explained. “They’re looking for wedge issues to divide this 11%.”
Just as coverage of crime and economic instability may be convincing people they need to be more concerned about these issues than necessary, Morris cautioned that the media should think about how they cover the political process.
For example, most coverage focuses on political advertising and television, but that is only a small part of the campaign budget, he said.
“We need to talk about what really drives this process,” Morris said. “If we get a discussion going about what politics is, we will all be far better served.”
Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover pointed out that candidates used to save their negative advertising for the end of the race, often when their opponents had no time to reply.
“Now they come out of the gate with negative ads,” he said.
Washington Post columnist David Broder said he thinks it is “wonderful” that television is pulling away from political conventions, ironically disowning its own creation.
Further, he maintained that while the presidential election story has been pretty well decided, there still are good stories coming out of the battle for Congress and surrounding the internal tensions within the parties.
Broder, however, said he has never believed much in journalism agenda setting.
“Politicians set the agenda,” he commented. “We ought to write about issues with a good sense of modesty about our ability to get it on the agenda.”
John Mashek, a visiting professional scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said he believes the “so-called ad watches are getting better all the time” and he wished that “television stations would do more.”
“Identifying these ads and commercials for what they are is good,” he said.
Further, Mashek said he would like to see more stories done by reporters out on the street talking to people.
“I’d like to see more about what voters are thinking,” he said, adding there should be more unfiltered coverage of the candidates because the public is interested in “seeing what the candidates have to say in their own words.”
The “truth boxes” or ad watch features started at the Los Angeles Times in 1986 and really took hold in 1990, according to former Newsweek correspondent Tom Rosenstiel, now a consultant for the Pew Charitable Trust, where he’s designing a project for journalists to raise journalism standards.
“That is significant because before 1990, political reporters did not look at advertising, so there was a disconnection between the reporting and what people saw,” he explained.
These truth boxes, which analyze campaign commercials for veracity, also have led to journalists injecting themselves into the political process in a new way, Rosenstiel added.
“They go from being a color commentator in the booth to being a referee on the field,” he said, noting that they had to “cross a line to do that.”
The original intent of the boxes was to indicate when political rhetoric was correct, but in the six years since they took hold, Rosenstiel said the result has been both “instructive and unfortunate.”
Although many newspapers and broadcast stations run these features, they do not do so systematically and there is no discipline as to how they are done, he said.
“They have little to do with the truth. They have evolved into strategic analysis. They are film criticism rather than checking the facts,” Rosenstiel commented, adding that “analyzing policy rhetoric is most important and the thing we do least well.”
While he thinks such truth boxes are a “great idea,” Rosenstiel said he was “sad to say that in the six years they’ve been in force, we’ve mucked it up.”
New Yorker correspondent Michael Kelly said he likes the idea of ad watches in principle, but agreed that they have become flawed.
There are two kinds of ads policed: those that are simply not true and those that are negative, he explained.
Regarding false ads, “truth boxes have become part of the structural coverage. They are a way in which to say if a candidate is telling the truth or not.
“The problem is,” he continued, “that removes the obligation of the news organization to do that in a larger, more serious way.”
In addition, Kelly said, the boxes are “asking people to render a complex decision in a forum that is not suited to it. It is very difficult to do, and it does not lend itself to two or three lines in a truth box.”
The subtlety of misleading statements is particularly difficult to address in the limited space of an ad watch box, he added.
“It’s hard to get at motivations and the way they’re shading the truth in something as limited as two or three sentences,” he noted.
Negative advertising is even more problematic, Kelly continued, pointing out that he is not against it, but that judgments by the press are “wholly subjective” and do not have much to do with whether the ad is true or not.
“I’m not sure that it’s a reporter’s judgment call to make,” he said, adding that he would make exceptions for “egregious outrages.”
“Aesthetic or moral judgments are not necessarily helpful,” Kelly remarked, but he’d hate to see the truth boxes disappear since they are “better than nothing.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy School at the Annenberg School for Communication, suggested that reporters writing ad watches adopt more precise words for describing the advertising.
For example, instead of indicating that an ad is “correct, but,” Jamieson suggested writing that the ad “does not give the whole story.” Or, instead of saying an ad is “misleading,” say that it “invites a false inference.”
In addition, Jamieson pointed out that when inaccuracies occur in political advertising, they usually are repeated in speeches, direct mail pieces and other communications from the candidate.
The solution, she said, is to “use the claim in the ad as a jumping-off point to show it is thematic throughout the campaign. It could be an entree to a discussion of substantive issues.”
Jamieson also suggested doing a broader analysis, a “whole-issue view,” and reminded participants that “visuals can be as misleading as the verbal.”
Veteran television producer Ed Fouhy, executive director of the Pew Center, pointed out that most ad watch writers focus on the script, but producers look at the pictures and the music and the words are last.
“Most writers look at tv ads inside out,” he noted, adding that most people “watch television, not listen to it.”
Media doing civic journalism need to “get beyond town meetings,” Citizens Election Project executive director Stan Cloud commented, since it is “naive to think candidates and their handlers will participate out of civic duty.”
The balance of power shifted from the press to the candidates in the 1980s, and “today, we are almost unbelievably manipulated, compared to the 1960s or ’70s,” Cloud added.
Former Chicago Tribune political correspondent Jon Margolis countered that the problem is that there is little the press can do about it.
That the public does not care that Bob Dole has not had a press conference since March, or much about public affairs at all, is as much responsible for the media’s loss of power as the campaign handlers of the 1980s, he noted.
“The only thing we can do is do a good job ? expose injustice, write good stories,” Margolis said.
Participants also noted that sometimes the timing for town hall meetings makes it impossible for candidates to attend and that they will start coming when it hurts them not to come.
Orange County’s Ames commented that the “real challenge is making issues stories as interesting as Dick Morris,” the former Clinton political adviser who resigned after an alleged tryst with a call girl at a Washington hotel.
Another facet new to this year’s presidential election is the proliferation of online media.
“Online has not revolutionized politics in 1996, but don’t give up on it,” said Mike Riley, senior correspondent for the All Politics online site.
“The indications are there is a lot of potential,” he said. “This medium offers a new way to tell the story, to bridge the disconnection gap,” particularly with so-called Generation X.
The key is the interactivity and participation by users, who want to debate but didn’t have a forum before, Riley explained.
The fact that online politics is both enriching and fun also helps, he said, noting that the way many other media cover politics “takes a lot of the fun out of it. We should think about that.”
Riley does not believe online will replace television or print media, but he does see it as an enhancement, a complement to the traditional media.
PoliticsUSA co-founder Doug Bailey does not consider his online service a journalistic enterprise, although that is part of what it does.
“We created a home for people online who are interested in politics and want to participate,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”
Nevertheless, Bailey warned people not to be misled by the “high glitz”; the number of people who can receive the service is limited, and the technology is costly.
Online is the future, though, he said.
“We are in the business of creating a new communications medium,” Bailey said. “What you see now in little snippets will become commonplace in the future.”
And the changes will come not only to journalism, but to politics as well, Bailey noted.
The California Voter Foundation is utilizing online media to effect politics now, to clean it up by making data easily available to the public and to make it less expensive for candidates to become involved, according to executive director Kim Alexander.
An integral part of the election-year coverage now includes the presidential and vice presidential candidates’ debates.
“Unfortunately, journalists often cover the debates like any other political speech,” remarked Fouhy, who has produced several of the debate programs. “They’re not so good at seeing the debates as others do.”
Fouhy said that the atmosphere surrounding a debate is “electric. I’ve never seen the tension that surrounds TV debates.”
Fouhy also has not seen coverage of that behind-the-scenes action, except in books after the fact.
In addition, he said that journalists should demand to see the pre-debate contract, which is secret but should not be.
“The American people deserve to know what is in that contract,” he said.
With this the third presidential debate in a row, Margolis said, not only do the candidates and press expect them now, so does the public.
A lot of undecided voters wait until after the debates to make up their minds, he said of their importance.
Over the past few years, however, Margolis said that too many of the reporters covering the debates have become theater critics, discussing more how the candidates performed than the substance of what they said.
“It’s the political reporter as TV critic rather than as discusser of substance,” he said.
“This is not just a show we’re covering,” Margolis said.
“It’s a campaign for president of the United States, which really means something.”
There is good news about debate coverage according to Deborah Potter, director of the Poynter Election Project at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
Potter pointed out that the debates are an opportunity for the press and the candidates to educate voters.
The growth of the citizen’s forum format also has made it “important for journalists now to realize they are not indispensable to the debates,” she added.
Urging reporters to “drop the sports metaphors,” Potter said debate coverage needs to move away from the “who won and who lost” scenario and the “gaffe news” that goes on for days and days.
“We ought to be asking, What did we learn? What did the public learn?” she said. “It’s incumbent on us to go in thinking about what people need to learn.”
Former Washington Post correspondent Paul Taylor, who has been advocating free TV time for candidates through the Free TV For Straight Talk Coalition, said he cannot imagine debates being covered any other way.
Debates are a “combination of stagecraft and substance,” he said, pointing out that the public doesn’t need reporters too much anyway, since people watch the debates themselves.
?(“We try to do polling not just to publish the results. We try to get information to do reporting better.”) [Caption]
?( ? David Hall, Cleveland Plain Dealer editor) [Photo & Caption]
?(“Politicians set the agenda. We ought to write about issues with a good sense of modesty about our ability to get it on the agenda.”) [Caption]
?(David Broder, Washington Post columnist) [Caption]
?(Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover pointed out that candidates used to save their negative advertising for the end of the race, often when their opponents had no time to reply. “Now they come out of the gate with negative ads,” he said) [Caption and Photo]