With 11 days to go before Election Day, the days are getting shorter and news stories are becoming cringier.
Now every reporter, myself included, has pounded out articles s/he isn’t particularly proud of, especially toward the close of a grueling campaign like this one. At this point, journalists are sleep-deprived and slap-happy. They’ve churned out hundreds –– if not thousands –– of stories, and pretty much everything has been written already.
It’s also the time of year that less experienced reporters are given a crack at election stories, given the glut of races. Many of them don’t the basics of political reporting, like how polling works and what the partisan base of districts and states is. As a result, green reporters are more easily spun and end up contributing some pretty clichéd coverage.
To avoid this late-term election trap, I’ve come up with a handy list of hackneyed stories to avoid writing (or reading):
1. Stolen Yard Signs. This is a staple of every small paper in the country. As sure as the leaves start turning, somebody (ideally a senior or a veteran) will call up the local editor to complain about his/her signs being swiped or vandalized. The other political campaign is promptly blamed, preferably with some variation of this anguished statement: “No one will ever silence me! This just shows how immoral and evil Candidate X truly is.” Then Candidate X disavows the scofflaw's dastardly deed. And sure enough, a Candidate X supporter calls a few days later to report his/her sign being stolen, too. Rinse and repeat. Nobody has ever really learned anything from these stories, but editors will keep catering to disaffected readers.
2. Outlier Polls. Polling is expensive, so much so that only a few news organizations pop for it nowadays. But there are always a few polls released more to net headlines than follow industry standards. It’s really tempting to report on these bigly. You know that your “Clinton Leads Trump in the 26th Straight Poll” headline will induce yawns. But your “Trump Within Striking Distance in New Poll” clickbait is gold. Maybe you’ll hit the jackpot and get that Drudge Report link. And besides, when Clinton wins by 7 points on Election Day, no one will remember your story, right?
3. Crazy Man on the Street. Interviewing actual voters is important, but a lot of reporters hate it. Why? Because you’re a magnet for people who will say anything just to get on camera or in the paper. Don’t give undue time to people who rail against Candidate X for poisoning us with fluoride in the water. It’s actually kind of mean to do so. And it doesn’t add anything to the public discourse. Of course, we have a major party presidential nominee who’s also a conspiracy theorist (the election is rigged, climate change is a hoax “created by and for the Chinese,” vaccines are linked to autism, etc.). So that definitely complicates things this election.
4. Candidate Wives as Appendages. It’s 2016 and we’re on the cusp of electing our first woman president. But the old chestnut of gooey candidate wife profiles (preferably with photo spreads of them glamorously slaving away in their gourmet kitchens) hasn’t died. Even though more women are running for office, that hasn’t translated into a glut of supportive candidate husband stories. Part of that comes from the campaigns themselves. Many of them aren’t exactly focused on whether they’re setting back gender relations for years to come; they wholeheartedly push these gauzy stories to soften a candidate’s image and distract from missteps. But the media don’t have to buy into these sexist tropes, especially when many candidates’ wives are frankly more accomplished and impressive than their husbands.
5. Bland Debate Analysis. I never read yard sign stories unless I want to snicker. But “Candidates Trade Barbs at Forum” headlines are a close second. Most local newspapers and newscasts assiduously avoid telling you who won a debate –– even if one candidate broke down and started speaking in tongues –– to skirt charges of bias. But few of these colorless stories give you a sense about what really went on for 90 minutes. Not surprisingly, many national publications, including The New York Times, have started running analysis pieces, many of which are delightfully droll. Meanwhile, cable news has solved its “bias” perception problem by pitting screaming campaign hacks against each other for 10 minutes at a time –– which makes “Candidates Clash on Ideas” stories look brilliant by comparison.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.