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 strange bedfellows: politics & journalism

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AliceKildaire
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PostSubject: strange bedfellows: politics & journalism   Sun Feb 15, 2009 9:31 pm

Covering government (be it local, state or national) can be particularly challenging for rookie journalists, primarily because politics can be so, well um, political.

The government beat can seem like a soul-sucking task to many reporters, particularly those who have a more creative bent. There are not a lot of creative juices flowing as you sit through endless hours of board meetings, wade through countless pages of legalese legislation or try to pull straight answers out of a politician. However, it doesn't seem nearly as soul-sucking if you can keep in mind why you're doing it - these are the stories that matter to your readers, your neighbors, and your family. Every decision made, every piece of legislation, every mind-numbing meeting has an impact on people and those people are expecting you to explain these often complicated issues.

I'm all about journalists using whatever tools they have available to get the job done and get it done well. One of the most important tools a reporter on a government beat can have is an understanding of those creatures we know as politicians.

Trust me; politicians have made an art out of manipulating journalists! Even at the local level, they have teams of people helping them refine their message, rehearse their answers and learn how to effectively dodge questions. I've been on the "inside" and I can tell you, in the backrooms and private meetings, politicians openly boast about their ability to effectively manipulate reporters, thereby controlling the flow of information, controlling the "message."

Luckily there are a few key things a journalist can do to avoid being manipulated.

1. Do your homework! Covering a press conference held to announce a new plan, new legislation or economic development project? Be sure to go in armed. Study the background documents. Never depend on them to volunteer all the pertinent information. They only volunteer what they want the public to know. It's up to you to discover that, buried on page 24 is a provision that says this new benefit only applies to one-armed, one-legged single mothers with naturally curly red hair, one blue eye and one green eye.

2. Never let them see your arsenal! You'd be amazed at the information you can glean by playing stupid. "I'm sorry, I still don't understand," is an effective tool to use to force them to be more forthcoming, not to mention a great way to elicit some terrific sound bytes they had not intended to use.

3. Be leery of sound bytes! Politicians and their teams spend countless hours coming up with catchy sound bytes with the specific purpose of "hooking" the reporters. They figure if they give us what seems like a juicy tid-bit, we'll quit digging for more.

4. Catch them off guard. Most politicians go into a press conference or interview with a specific script memorized. They're armed with questions they expect and have well-rehearsed answers for each of those questions. Deviate from the norm; refuse to follow the expected script (unless of course you have previously agreed to a set list of questions, which you should try to avoid.) During a press conference, ask follow up questions, refer to past statements they've made, ask about those things buried on page 24. If they start squirming, you know you're on to something. Be careful with this though, if they don't immediately cough up an answer, save it for later, schedule an interview in the next day or two to readdress the question. Number one, the politician will appreciate the fact you didn't completely grill them but let it drop and number two, other reporters won't be so quick to steal "your" story. Of course sometimes the other reporters will pick up on what you're going after and back you up. If that happens, forge ahead and just try to beat the other guy to press! In a one-to-one interview, never let them control the flow of the interview. This is easily done by dropping the normal Q & A routine and having a conversation instead. Ask them to explain their views. Ask about their life experiences that helped shape those views. Once they're enjoying a comfortable conversation you can start to pull info that wasn't rehearsed because they no longer have their guard up.

5. Know their voting record. What they say and how they vote are often worlds apart and nothing will make a reporter look more foolish, more like a tool, than to merely parrot a politician's intended message. For instance, would you really want to print a story announcing a candidate's intention to seek re-election on a platform of lower taxes and increased public safety spending without including the fact that said candidate had voted in favor of tax increases four times while voting against increased public safety spending three times?

6. Don't let them pull you into the mud! This is especially important during elections. Politicians are notorious for twisting the truth in ads and are chomping at the bit to get a newspaper to legitimize their claims by printing the accusation. For instance, Candidate A may attack another candidate in a mailing by saying "Candidate X refused to increase salaries for teachers." A reporter covering the campaign may not do their homework and may not discover that the story behind the accusation was that Candidate X voted no for the state budget because it included a 4% tax increase for residents, oh and a salary increase for teachers. The uninformed reporter writes a story about the campaign in which he mentions "Candidate X is being attacked for refusing to increase teacher salaries." Without any other background information, readers assume the attacks are true and the reporter is suddenly guilty of perpetuating misinformation. "Oh but I KNOW he did that, I read it in the paper!"

7. Never come out with all your guns blazing! A politician is going to clam up around a reporter he/she feels is out to get him. You've heard the old adage that you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. The same concept applies. Befriend the politicians. Be careful, this is a very delicate tight-rope act, but you'll get much more information out of someone by being friendly, pleasant and helpful. Much of this can be accomplished simply by being mindful of how you phrase your questions. For instance, you have a politician being accused by an opponent of selling political favors...odds are good that he's going to hang up on you if you call and start the conversation with, "Mr. A, is it true that you've been doing XY & Z?" Instead try a friendlier approach such as, "Mr. A, there's been a lot of accusations flying around about XY & Z and I wanted be sure you had the opportunity to set the record straight before the election." Before you know it, the politician has opened up and you have five pages of notes and quotes about the issue. As hard as it is to believe sometimes, politicians are people too. They have families, lives outside of politics. You can learn a lot by having a friendly chat about their holidays or their childhood.

8. Never promise not to burn a politician! When I was first named editor, I had politicians pumping my hand in congratulations, saying, "we look forward to some real positive coverage!" I simply smiled and sweetly assured them that when they did positive things they would get positive coverage but not to get upset if they did something stupid and looked stupid on the front page. You have an obligation to be fair and accurate. That's all. Don't promise more, because if you do and then report something negative, it will be taken personally and you'll never get anything else out of them. Fair and accurate, that's all most people, readers and politicians, ask for and it's your job to give it them.

9. Don't overlook the little guy! Assistants, aides and secretaries can be valuable weapons in your arsenal. Treat them with respect; strike up a rapport with them. Next thing you know they'll be calling you to give you a heads up on something coming down the pipe. NEVER EVER burn them!! If they're feeding you information, keep it to yourself! Don't ever throw them under the bus with "oh your secretary said" or quoting them in the paper without their permission. Their jobs are on the line and you have an obligation to protect them. View the info they offer as an inside line on what questions to ask and what corners to poke into, not news sources. If you burn them, not only will you lose that invaluable inside line, but you'll probably never again be able to get a call returned from that office.

10. Don't let yourself get lost in the circus! Politicians are firm believers of the old adage, "if all else fails, baffle them with BS!" They fall back on this when they're talking in circles and jumping all over the map trying to avoid actually giving you a straight answer. They also follow this by trying sleight of hand tricks. You're working hard to get them to trust you, to give you information. Don't fool yourself into not recognizing that they are doing the same thing with you. They're trying to get you to trust them so you will automatically accept them at face value, take their word as truth while ignoring that mess buried on page 24. In other words they are hoping to manipulate you. Different folks try different ways first, but you can rest assured, flattery, perks and intimidation are all tried and true methods for them. Don't let them baffle you with the BS. Assume it's BS until proven otherwise!
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ReNu
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PostSubject: Re: strange bedfellows: politics & journalism   Sun Feb 15, 2009 9:46 pm

Excellent, thanks Alice! I can't wait to interview a politician and pretend to be dumb. Hopefully from May...
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I_am_Tulsa
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PostSubject: Re: strange bedfellows: politics & journalism   Wed Feb 25, 2009 8:10 am

o_O Extraordinary!
I must admit number 2 would be VERY easy for me to do!
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emilycross
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PostSubject: Re: strange bedfellows: politics & journalism   Thu Mar 05, 2009 7:36 am

Alice, i feel i should copy and save this on my computer - excellent!! Thank you!

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