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Too Many Elections?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on November 3, 2009

We’re covering eleven elections in nine counties across central Missouri today.  That’s not a lot.  Typical elections for us involve 200 races or more.  But those are general elections in even-numbered years—the days we elect presidents and governors and such.  Today is different.  Officially, Missouri calls it a “public election” day.  And it’s one of six such days this year. That’s right, Missouri’s had six election days in this odd-numbered year—February 3, March 3, April 7, June 2, August 4, and November 3.  That’s crazy.

Now, I’m not anti-political or anything.  I have two advanced degrees in political science and love talking all things politics.  I even own the DVDs for HBO’s “K Street.”  Public policy stories are central to the mission of every newsroom.  It’s crucial to democracy that we do our jobs to inform the electorate as completely as possible.  Only through perfect knowledge can democracy work perfectly.  So why am I complaining about all the elections?

That’s because I think our newsrooms are suffering from election fatigue.  Six local elections a year, congressional races every other year, and a presidential election cycle that runs almost 4 years all mean we don’t see the worth of the individual elections.  So we don’t giving many of them the attention they deserve.

I’m not alone on noticing this.  Last night, The Daily Show branded its coverage of today’s elections “Indecision 2009: Vote or Keep Going About Your Day.”  Most people will do the latter.  The proliferation of elections combined with the lackluster coverage the off-year contests get gives us little to attract viewers and listeners.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  One small school district in a neighboring county has a multi-million dollar bond issue on the ballot.  “Proposition K.I.D.S” (that’s really what it’s called on the ballot—and don’t get me started on that) would borrow thousands of dollars for every student in the district.  Our coverage, combined with that of my competitors, has totaled three stories—fewer than one per news outlet.  Why?  Well, in part, because all these stories look alike.  We talk to the superintendent who tells us how bad the district needs the help, we find a teacher to humanize it all around, and we shoot some shots of the dilapidated structures the measure would help to clean up.  Oh, and we end it all with a tag saying we could not find any organized opposition to the measure.  Sound familiar?  It should.  I see stories just like this all over the country.  They’re lazy reporting.  And they happen because reporters asked to do them too often just run out of steam for trying anything new—like really telling us whether the districts need these dollars or not.

The viewers are on to us about how badly we do these stories.  Just yesterday I got an e-mail from a viewer regarding one of our election preview stories about a local school bond issue.  He said, “I have a hard time believing you can not find anyone who is against this bond issue. You have had two reports on this channel stating that fact, and that is not true. My opinion has been voiced at board meetings and in conversations with other patrons in our district, also to your TV Station. I guess that opinion does not matter.”  See, he got us.  All we needed to do is just a little more reporting, in this case looking at the minutes of the board meetings, and we would have had some of that opposition we always seem to find so elusive.  But we didn’t.  And neither do most of your reporters.

Missouri (and your state) aren’t likely to go on an election diet anytime soon, so what can we do about this problem?  The big elections are going to continue to get plenty of coverage, so let’s do something about the little ones like some of us are having today.  Here’s something I wish I had done this time around—and believe I will do next time.  Each of the nine school bond or tax issues we’re reporting results of today could have had four stories from us over the past few weeks.  One of those stories for each would have been the one we already did—the supporters of the measure talking about the deficiencies in the school to be fixed by the voters.  Another would be an honest effort to find those opposed to the measure, airing their reasons why.  A third would be a solid reporting job on the history of tax and bond measures in the district and how those were used in the past.  And the final would be an itemized look at exactly how the funds from the current measure would be used.

Simple stuff there, really.  One reporter could do all four of those stories in a short visit or two to the district.  The reporting time would be worth it to add that much value to the issue and to the election itself.  How about it?  My next election is Groundhog’s Day.  I’d better get moving.

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