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How to Focus on Campaign Issues When Reporting on Political Candidates

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Voters gathered at a political rally

Voters often criticize the media for not covering the campaign issues most important to them.

Photo © Getty Images
Writing about campaign issues during an election year can be trickier than it would seem. Focus on what's most important to voters to give your reports value and to fend off any attacks from the candidates concerning the questions you ask.

Reporting on Campaign Issues Boosts Your Credibility

Reporters often come under fire for horse race coverage of a campaign. It's much easier to report on which candidate is up or down in the latest political poll than it is to truly understand the debate over social security or the budget deficit.

If you make uninformed choices on which issues you cover, you may have critics accusing you of bias or media censorship. That's how they'll explain why you covered a crisis in the Middle East so much more than health care reform.

By knowing which issues matter most to voters, you will be seen as a credible, unbiased reporter with a reputation for getting the facts. You won't be swayed by politicians who try to manipulate the media by only wanting to discuss the pre-determined talking points of their campaign.

Using Tools to Determine Campaign Issues

To discover which campaign issues are important to a majority of voters in an election year, you have to ask a wide cross-section of people. You'll get a different set of answers from a group of CEOs versus teachers or factory workers.

Set up a town hall meeting to invite people to speak their mind. If you have the resources, you could rent an auditorium with the help of a community partner. An alternative is to get a small group together who are chosen based on their gender, race, occupation and income to give you the variety of people needed to get good answers.

Another idea is using social media for research. Pose questions on Twitter or Facebook and track the responses. You can also use your website, provided you have a good comments policy.

Using the Internet may be easier than organizing a town hall meeting, you can never be sure who's posting comments to your questions and whether your results are accurate. Whichever method you use, make sure to publicize it in your follow-up stories by saying something like, "Voters who took part in our meeting/social media project told us they want to know more about the candidates' stand on taxes." That way, you remind people that you're asking the questions that voters want answered, and you're giving yourself the credit for your fact-finding mission.

Taking Campaign Issues to the Candidates

A candidate who doesn't have an answer to a reporter's question about a campaign issue will typically respond in one of two ways -- either change the subject to something she does want to talk about or blame the reporter for asking something irrelevant, stupid or biased.

You have a great comeback as a reporter when you can say, "We asked voters in a town hall meeting and this is what they want us to ask you." The candidate may squirm, but hopefully you'll get an answer to your question.

While candidates can sometimes boost themselves by blasting a reporters' questions, they can't be seen as sidestepping the voters. That's especially true in a debate, where voters are watching body language, facial expressions and any sign of uneasiness in deciding which candidate will get their support. Reporters covering a debate will surely note if a candidate can't provide answers when told that voters say they want to know more about her tax returns.

It takes some effort for a reporter to research the campaign issues which are most important to voters. That time will pay off when you deliver stories that will set yourself above your competitors, whose bland reporting will go unnoticed for not being well thought out or special.

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