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Boyd Lecture Series discusses journalists' coverage of political issues

Friday, April 27, 2012 | 6:57 p.m. CDT; updated 11:26 a.m. CDT, Saturday, April 28, 2012

COLUMBIA — The people, not the politicians, should be the focus of presidential election coverage in swing states. That's the conclusion four journalists came to during an open discussion Friday. 

The swing states represented in the discussion were Missouri, Florida, Ohio and Michigan. Each state's vote is guided by news publications, whose coverage of election events can shape votes in these crucial states. 

The discussion was part of the Gerald M. Boyd Politics and Press Responsibility Lecture Series. Panelists attempted to clarify their coverage of the major political issues of the day, including how issues in journalism might stem from those in power. 

More than 60 people attended the event, packed together in a room in MU's Reynolds Journalism Institute. 

Mark Russell, a 1984 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, facilitated the discussion. Russell is currently the editor of the Orlando Sentinel in Florida. The four panelists included: 

  • Major Garrett is a White House correspondent covering the upcoming presidential election for National Journal. He graduated from MU in 1984 and was Russell's roommate their senior year.
  • Rochelle Riley, a columnist at the Detroit Free Press, called Michigan "most dysfunctional political state in the country."
  • Darrel Rowland is the public affairs editor of the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio. 
  • Jake Wagman covers politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and graduated from MU in 2000. 

Here are the highlights:

Debates

Wagman said one of the problems in covering debates during the primaries is that new pieces of information from the politicians are elusive. "It's hard to find what's organic versus what's been aggregated over and over," Wagman said. He said this stems from politicians' fear of sticking their necks out and potentially losing voters.

Rowland agreed: "How much of a serious policy discussion can you have at a debate with a 90-second sound bite?" 

Riley said the debates focus on entertainment rather than information. She said the problem is that the information accessible to voters has either been aggregated or is superficial and doesn't get to the issues voters care about most, like the economy or foreign policy.

"Instead of being able to Google the hundred million things about (the candidates), the debates should show us who they really are," Riley said.

Campaign coverage

All four panelists agreed that election coverage in the swing states is vital. Rowland said that instead of going to the candidates first, journalists should to go to the people.

"We can tell that story," Rowland said. "We're not going to get one-on-one face time with the president, but we can with our neighbors."

Riley keeps her coverage local by talking to her barber and an 80-year-old woman she knows who watches MSNBC all day. They might not know the whole story, but they always remind her what they think is important.

"You have to find what issues people are talking about and what they're looking for in the coverage," Riley said.

Important issue coverage

Because debates only seem to scratch the surface of policies, viewers are left with little understanding of the issues they care the most about. Riley said the problem is that nobody wants to do the deep reporting.

"I want to contend that we haven't provided this in-depth coverage for decades," Riley said. "We don't really know anything about what the candidates know. It's like a soap opera rather than an economics class."

Garrett said his magazine, National Journal, has done a decent job covering issues. But he said his problem is that the magazine costs $4,000 a year for a subscription, so the information is only accessible to a limited audience. 

The panelists agreed that politicians are wiggly sources and that asking and covering real people in the swing states will produce the best results. Only voters will know if this model will work when those results are revealed in the 2012 presidential elections.  


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