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Beyond the Sound Bite:
Politics and Public Affairs for TV

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The big picture: covering the campaign in an age of anonymous sources and dirty politics

By Taylor Elmore

Covering politics and government has become harder than ever for broadcast journalists due to the heated political polarization, spin, dirty politics and anonymous sources. 

“We in the news media have become the enemy,” said Deborah Potter, executive director of Newslab, a non-profit journalism training and research center in Washington, D.C.  “Let’s face it, (candidates) didn’t love us before, but they needed us.  They don’t need us anymore, and they know it.”

Journalists, once considered critical to a candidates campaign, are now treated as pariahs, which Potter considers “dirty politics done to us.”

According to a recent Pugh study, 40% of Americans believe little or nothing they see on television news.  The figure is even worse for print journalists, with nearly half the U.S. population claiming not to believe what they read in newspapers.

“Politicians have managed to put us on the defensive,” said Potter.  “We’re the bad guys.”

So how can journalists, spurned by candidates and mistrusted by the general population, provide a public service to viewers?

Potter turned that question over to the room of assembled broadcast reporters and producers, inviting them to discuss the barriers they face on a day-to-day basis in reporting government and politics.  Some of the themes that emerged included:

  • Inaccessible politicians who control the debate by using talk radio and eschewing contact with journalists who ask questions “off the script.” Candidates and office-holders are more media-trained than ever, and many have become experts at controlling their image and deflecting tough questions.
  • Apolitical producers who are content to relegate political coverage to early or late slots in order to concentrate on more obviously visual or “sexier” stories.
  • Lack of trust by candidates in media outlets’ fairness or objectivity.
  • Broadcast time limitations, which relegate difficult issues to time slots too short to adequately explore their inherent complexities.
  • Viewer apathy and ignorance of political and governmental issues.
  • Weak visuals make it tough to convey complex governmental issues in an arresting manner without resorting to full-screen graphics and talking-head consultant clips.
  • Lack of access to polling places, candidates and government officials.
  • A crush of email “garbage” from advocacy and polling groups, which must be culled and sifted through in order to find stories, taking time and energy that might be better used elsewhere.
  • Lack of research time and resources to fully explore meaningful issues.

Potter revisited these challenges on the last day of the seminar with the intent of providing some solutions.  While acknowledging that some of these challenges aren’t going away any time soon, some meaningful strategies to counteract them include:
  • orming partnerships and creating allies:  News organizations can often exert more clout to take on inaccessible politicians by involving partner stations or cross-ownership situations; in effect, pooling resources.
  • Reframing the sell: Sometimes, not using the word “politics” in a story pitch can go a long way towards smoothing a producer’s skepticism of its ability to pique viewer interest.  News organizations can also look for creative ways to “franchise” a story segment, making it a part of an ongoing series rather than a stand-alone story.
  • Multi-versioning: Try doing stories different ways in different venues.  For example, continue a broadcast story in an online or print follow-up, allowing for more depth of coverage across media.
  • Work as a team with the videographer:  If the videographer is involved in the creative process, they can sometimes come up with the kinds of arresting visuals that grab viewers and producers.
  • Reveal, don’t tell:  Put yourself in a place or situation where the candidate can reveal his or her character.  “Roll all the time,” said Potter.  Treat political stories like any other breaking news story, in which anything can happen at any time, and that will allow you to increase the possibility of catching something compelling by surprise.
  • Show up with a plan: When pitching a story to management, it’s easier to sell a story when it’s well thought-out and can be approached from multiple angles.
  • Keep stories simple: Don’t reach for too much without covering the basic “universal truths in all good stories,” said Potter.  However, Dan Weiser said “keep it simple” doesn’t mean “dumb it down.” It’s still important to provide depth of coverage, but seeking a creative way of doing so can appeal to a broader platform of viewers than if you just shovel out dry facts, figures and talking heads.

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