Five Ideas: The best way to cover election campaigns

Saturday, October 25, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:57 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008

People politics

Reporters struggle with it each election cycle: How much do citizens really want to know about a candidate's personality?

The Missourian is now two weeks into its daily election profiles, leading at least one reader to express concern that the issues are being ignored in favor of stories about who the candidates are as people. To set the record straight, the profiles are intended to be about personality only. Readers can expect to see issues covered more thoroughly in the week and a half leading up to the election, as well as in the voters' guides that will be published in print the last two Saturdays before the election.

It is, however, still a valid criticism. The argument could be, and has been made, that candidate policy stances are all that matter. Others might suggest that more balanced profiles which shed light on personality but also delve into the issues would be more helpful to a potential voter.

The profile pages were never meant to be decision-makers for readers; rather, their goal has been to help readers get to know candidates. Perhaps the most prudent course of action would be to add basic issue coverage to the pages while keeping the profiles focused on personality, if in fact anyone actually cares.

Are a candidate's personality and background important in determining who to vote for?

Follow the leader

According to a recent study released by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, media coverage of John McCain in the weeks since the Republican National Convention has been overwhelmingly negative in tone.

Of the McCain stories, only 14 percent were positive, while 60 percent were deemed negative by the researchers. The tone of Barack Obama's media coverage was 36 percent positive, 35 percent mixed and 29 percent negative.

The gut reaction is to raise flags about biased media coverage — and there may be some truth to that assumption. However, the study's authors suggested that McCain may have brought the negative coverage on himself.

"In many ways, the arc of the media narrative during this phase of the 2008 general election might best be described as a drama in which John McCain acted and Barack Obama reacted," the study said, according to

If the tone of the coverage is largely a result of negative campaigning by McCain, that speaks volumes on the nature of media coverage during elections. If negativity begets negativity, that suggests  journalists are being directed by the campaign itself.

To a certain extent that's healthy — voters deserve to know what issues the candidates deem important. But when both campaigns focus too hard on extraneous political attacks, it should be the journalists' role to get the conversation back on topic.

How could the media do a better job of covering the campaign?

Hickman fight sparks discussion

The police officer who broke up a fight at Hickman High School on Oct. 15, injuring a would-be peacemaker in the process, returned to duty at the school last week, setting off a flurry of discussion.

His return is being met with some resistance by the student's family, but department rules stipulate he should return to work "unless there is serious incident."

If the officer can't be trusted to return to his post, he shouldn't have been placed at the high school to begin with. That being said, in this situation, a high school student's concerns for safety may override typical department protocol.

The question of fault, though, is a more delicate issue to address.

It seems unreasonable to expect the officer to identify instigator vs. peacekeeper, given the circumstances. And had the peacemaker been one of the combatants, this discussion may never have taken place. But if the officer's behavior was inappropriate regardless of the student's role in the fight, assigning blame becomes a no-brainer.

Would the community's outrage be the same if he'd injured one of the combatants? Should it be?



MU Athletic Director Mike Alden put a moratorium on morning tailgating at Reactor Field for the time being, following a series of fights at the last home game that led to three arrests.

The lot will open at 2:30 p.m. for Saturday night's game against Colorado; kickoff is at 5:30.

The motivation for the delay is understandable, but its implementation leaves much to be desired among fans. If arrests don't deter the bad apples, it's unlikely that cutting down on tailgating time will — a proverbial slap on the wrist if ever there was one. Who's to say that the problems won't simply migrate elsewhere, perhaps to on-campus lots farther away from the stadium?

And the lot's delayed opening couldn't have come at a worse time for some fans — it's homecoming weekend, meaning Mizzou's already-packed game-day parking lots will see a flood of new patrons, many of whom will be there just for the tailgating, as tickets are hard to come by.

MU Police Chief Jack Watring estimated about 3,000 to 4,000 people tailgated at Reactor Field during the game against Oklahoma State — not an insignificant amount of people to relocate.

Should MU delay the opening of Reactor Field to tailgaters?

Public defenders lack funding

Strapped with growing caseloads, Boone County public defenders have been allowed to reject certain types of cases that involve probationary sentences. Legally, the constitutional right to an attorney doesn't extend to such cases, given that jail time isn't at stake. But the decision highlights a far more pressing issue: Public defenders in the county are overworked and underpaid, leading to high turnover and less-than-ideal working conditions, given the importance of the craft.

The solution to this, according to H.A. "Skip" Walther, president-elect of the Missouri Bar Association, is to either increase funding to hire more lawyers or decrease the number of mandatory jail sentences, whittling down the workload for public defenders.

Given the county's recent action, the powers that be may prefer the latter course of action.

Should Boone County cut back on jail sentencing to reduce the workload of public defenders?

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