It didn’t take long for us to decide on a theme for our annual ethics issue.
In December, when we were setting the editorial calendar, we were seeing daily coverage of the Democratic primary race. That coverage provided media watchers with plenty to discuss, and it was clear from the tone of those early campaigns that the main event – the presidential race this November – was going to be one to remember.
Many Democratic primary voters were citing “ability to beat President Bush” as their single priority, and the primary process itself was planned in such a way to maintain Democratic unity going into the November elections.
I don’t know if the current presidential race will be as close as the one four years ago, but I suspect it will be more passionate. There seems to be a sense among Americans that there’s more at stake this time around; with such significant issues as national security and the economy looming, the choice of leadership can make a meaningful difference.
All of this, of course, adds to the responsibility of the journalists covering the election. The way we cover specific candidates – as well as the political process in general – has a dramatic impact on the outcome of elections. The stories in this issue examine the ethics of election coverage and can provide some resources for covering the campaigns.
Several of the stories fall neatly into the “lessons never learned” category. These are the things that always get journalists into trouble, yet we seem to keep doing them. On Page 8, read about the dangers of relying too heavily on polling data in election coverage. This isn’t a new message, but we have to look no further back than the burst of the Howard Dean bubble to see that it’s a lesson journalists still need to learn. Read more about the best ways to use polling data in stories – and how to avoid trouble that comes with incorrectly using polling data.
On Page 12, we look at another lesson on polling from the last election. We all remember the botched calls throughout the evening on election night – first Al Gore was declared president, then Bush, then it was determined to be too close to call. We’ve had almost four years to find and correct the problems in the exit-polling system used by networks and wire services. Our story examines how prepared – or unprepared – we are going into this year’s election.
But there are more elections this November than the presidential race, and not all of them are for national posts. Journalists covering local elections have their own unique set of ethical hurdles. On Page 15, Ethics Committee Co-Chair Fred Brown writes about the difficulties newspaper reporters face when their paper endorses a particular candidate. Though most papers are careful to separate their editorial views from their coverage, the mere perception that the paper favors one candidate over another can create headaches for political reporters.
On Page 18, we examine another trend in election coverage that has gained a lot of attention in recent years. Political-savvy reporters who watch the inner workings of campaigns are often just as interested in why a candidate says something as they are what it is he or she is saying. This preoccupation with the strategy behind political campaigns spills over into our coverage, and it’s evident in most stories that come from the campaign trail. Our story examines where the balance should be between actual issues coverage and stories about the politics behind any election race.
One familiar election-year story we haven’t seen in the current presidential race is the examination of candidates’ personal lives. Sex scandals involving politicians fall into that gray area of journalism ethics; while many journalists believe the personal lives of public officials don’t inherently fall in the public domain, these stories have a way of making headlines. On Page 21, our ongoing Media Leaders Forum examines the hypothetical case of a governor’s affair and the ethical implications of covering the affair. On Page 25, we compare two past sex scandals involving politicians and how the timing of elections influenced the journalists covering those stories.
As we move deeper into this year’s election season, I hope the stories in this issue will serve as a reminder. For those covering elections directly, they are a reminder of the pitfalls our coverage can fall into. For the rest of us, they are a reminder of how important our role is in the process of American democracy – and how easy it is for us to lose sight of that role.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.