It’s time for political beat reporters to pick up a bat and see what it’s like to take a swing.
Sasha Issenberg, Slate. Stuff Some Envelopes, Then Ask Questions.
The Issue: Issenberg argues that political campaigns have become so complex and statistically driven that reporters often don’t understand the mechanics of what drives them.
His solution: Make reporters work inside a campaign to learn how they really work.
So a modest proposal: newsrooms develop a version of a study-abroad program, placing their reporters in campaign field offices for a month during the summer of an election season. It’s time that they see the place where campaigns interact with real people, by asking the questions on phone-bank scripts, entering the answers into databases, then seeing how that information shapes decisions about which voters to call or visit next… My guess is that journalists who spent even a few weeks in this world would pose wildly different questions the next time they sat down with Jim Messina or Stuart Stevens.
The goal would not be to gather intelligence about a particular candidate and his tactics but to build institutional knowledge that could help to re-center journalistic understandings of what a campaign actually does. To assuage concerns about bias and conflicts of interest, newsrooms could assign reporters to work in races away from the ones they cover: the Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent gets detailed to an Oregon mayoral campaign, the Nevada radio reporter to a Maine ballot initiative. Assignment editors at the Washington Post and Politico and NBC News would randomly dispatch their reporters so they’re split evenly, half campaigning for Democratic candidates and half for Republicans. While it would be great if they could slot into presidential campaigns, it’s by no means necessary. Many of the essential tools used by campaigns for organizing and marshaling voter data have become so universal that a national political journalist would learn plenty from being exposed to a competent modern campaign for state legislature or county judge.
There are probably quite a few areas where having beat journalists do the same thing might yield very different questions, and different outcomes for public debate, and even for transparency and accountability.