Open Dialogue

The challenges and rewards of reporting during the busy election season

By Myers Reece

In the span of a few weeks, our small newsroom will cover nearly 30 political races and interview twice that number of candidates. Right now, we have five reporters tracking down 37 candidates — from every corner of Northwest Montana, some more remote than others — for 18 state Senate and House contests. Many will answer a questionnaire, while others will be featured in profiles, requiring additional interviews and research.

Through a certain lens, that math is daunting. It’s a lot of responsibility for a few reporters, with the heaviest lifting falling on senior writer Tristan Scott’s shoulders. But through the lens of responsible journalism, guided by the core principle of an informed electorate, it can almost feel insufficient.

How do you reasonably cover each and every race, while finding time to stitch together longer features on high-profile battles, and walk away feeling the job has been done? The simple answer is you do your best. You try to be fair and thorough, you work diligently under pressure, and you trust the instincts of your ethics.

The world doesn’t come to a standstill for election season, so we’ll continue writing features on local businesses, covering municipal government, and taking photos of high school athletes, among the plentiful other day-to-day duties of a local newspaper. But we’ll place an outsized emphasis on politics, in the form of man-hours and dedicated space in the paper.

You can debate the veracity of the adage that “all politics is local,” considering Washington, D.C., often feels like it’s operating in its own dimension on the other side of the world, but it’s true that local politics touch our lives most directly on a daily basis. The shop owner down the street or farmer west of town might be deciding the rules of your land usage and tax structure, so you should get to know him or her. A newspaper questionnaire and biography is a good place to start.

U.S. presidential candidates, senators and congressmen, and to a lesser degree top-ranking state politicians such as governor, are surrounded by layers of aides and public relations platoons. This is a reality of modern political discourse, and it can muddy the conversation.

But the pathways to local legislators are typically crystal clear, and a newspaper’s coverage often reflects that openness. Interviews with a candidate who has never run for office can be candid, more so than with a career politician whose words have repeatedly been scrutinized under the microscope of public opinion and media punditry.

Of course, we also cover races for the state’s highest offices, from auditor and governor to U.S. representative and senator, and we believe those profiles can be just as illuminating as the local legislative stories, even if they contain a few more politically convenient sound bites.

As the Beacon’s senior writer during the 2012 general election, I covered 20 races, including the big-money U.S. Senate showdown between Jon Tester and Denny Rehberg, and co-moderated a gubernatorial debate between Rick Hill and Steve Bullock with editor Kellyn Brown. I learned a lot about the nature of modern campaigning, as well as media-politician relationships and responsibilities.

Most importantly, I hope my stories — along with those of other media sources — helped readers learn enough about their candidates to make educated decisions at the ballot box, just as I hope our upcoming coverage will.

Ultimately, that’s what reporters, voters, and politicians all want, or should want: an open dialogue, which serves as the foundation of democracy. It takes work, but we owe it to ourselves, and the effort is worth it.