During election season, pay attention to who’s delivering the message
May 6, 2014
By Jim Pumarlo
A regional arts council distributes funds to local artists, courtesy of a grant from the state arts board. A start-up company gets a boost from a venture capital fund. A local bike trail will finally connect two cities, thanks to support from a new state trails program.
Government, at its core, is in the business of collecting taxes and then redistributing the money for programs and services thoroughly debated by lawmakers. In the end, legislators’ support or opposition for programs is conveniently forgotten when funding is announced. It’s a good bet all lawmakers are ready to take credit for delivering money to local constituencies.
Editors always should consider when to acknowledge a connection between the “whom” and “what” in news reports. It bears extra attention during election season when candidates conjure every conceivable way to get their names in the public. Incumbents especially are in excellent position to boost their re-election efforts with a steady stream of appearances and press releases.
Editors should be careful not to let their cynicism stand in the way of legitimate news. Politicians do campaign on the ability to deliver critical votes—for policies and dollars—that benefit local interests. When they do so, they deserve to take some credit.
But there are plenty of instances where newsrooms should take pause.
Savvy politicians seize every opportunity to step up their public relations efforts. It’s no coincidence when a member of Congress addresses a county board to announce support for federal funds for a local highway project. Or consider an incumbent facing a tough re-election who asks for time on a city council agenda to provide an update on federal or state legislative issues. Election time also is a chance for a legislative candidate to attend a school board meeting and endorse more state dollars for education.
Do not automatically discount these scenarios as ploys for publicity. There may be legitimate news. But everyone should be on the lookout to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Consider a governor who issues a press release for every local highway funding project. A lawmaker announces the rules for a state quilting contest. Another announces that shipping season has closed on the local waterway. A legislator proclaims that free tax preparation assistance is available for qualifying residents.
The releases indeed carry news, but editors should have no qualms in eliminating all references to the lawmakers. There is absolutely no connection between the news and the politician.
Election season also is a reminder to evaluate when to identify a link between individuals and their families, employers or certain organizations. There is no universal right or wrong in these situations, but decisions warrant consistency. Newsrooms should develop general guidelines, keeping in mind that all circumstances must be reviewed on their individual merits.
Newspapers typically confront these decisions in connection with “bad” news. Editors should not forget, however, the instances of prominent residents—politicians included—who expect favorable treatment in their local newspapers. These individuals expect that certain items will be published—and at minimum, that they will be connected to this good news—items that would not see print under ordinary circumstances.
Remember, bending the rules for “good” news can produce just as many headaches for editors as looking the other way when “bad” news occurs. © Jim Pumarlo 2014
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.