THE BLOG
11/13/2014 03:24 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Journalists Discuss Difficulty in Breaking Candidates From Scripted Lines

The Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain Correspondent, Corey Hutchins, has posted highlights of a panel discussion Tuesday, moderated by Compass Colorado's Kelly Maher and me, on local news coverage of the 2014 election.

Here are three of Hutchins' eight highlights:

Bored on the Bus

KDVR's Eli Stokols on covering the modern professional campaign:

"Unfortunately there were very few days where I sat there and I said, 'Absolutely have to shoot this today,' because it was so rare that these candidates were actually available, putting out public schedules, doing public events... I rode on the Udall bus, I went up to Fort Collins and Greeley a couple times to find Cory [Gardner] when he was speaking to Republicans there, and you know, you would get the same rehearsed, trite lines from all of them. And when you sat them down in an interview you got the same rehearsed, trite lines from both. And so maybe it is incumbent on us to be better, to push them out of their comfort zone a little bit ... I think that's the tough part of the modern campaign. Campaigns with money are so not reliant anymore on mainstream media to get their message out, especially in a market like this [in Colorado] where there is not such a critical mass of media."

The Denver Post didn't want to cover 'scripted theater'

Post politics editor [Chuck] Plunkett said his paper didn't want to fall into the trap of covering what he called the "scripted theater" of the campaigns. So in the early spring, he said, he gathered staff for multiple substantive discussions about issues they wanted to address this election season, so they weren't just "having to chase the Twitter around, having to chase the horse race around." Some of the issues they decided to focus on were immigration, the ground game, and money, and how candidates evolved on issues. Also, for the first time, the paper held its own recorded debates in its auditorium instead of partnering with a TV station....

Didn't approve this ad

CBS4's [Shaun Boyd] provided some levity when she spoke of how she'd recoiled at seeing her on-air reporting appear in a political ad on TV. To her dismay, her station ran the ad on its airwaves. But, she said, other TV stations in Denver didn't air it because they didn't want to highlight the reporting of a competitor.

In his post, Hutchins quotes Associated Press reporter Nicholas Riccardi, in particular, talking about how closely the professional candidates stay on their talking points. He said he hopes, going forward, to walk away from the campaign trail more often and write about the election from an outside-the-box perspective.

That's a good idea, but I thought local journalists could have at least tried to break the campaign script more often during the last election. And even if they didn't break it completely, they could have spotlighted candidates' manipulative or repetitive talking points more clearly for voters, like Eli Stokols did in his interview with Senator-elect Cory Gardner.

This would have required more aggressive follow-up questioning by journalists, and it could have been done at more of the public events where reporters questioned the candidates.

The frustration of the journalists on the panel Tuesday was mostly not evident at the candidate debates and interviews, where journalists, with some important exceptions here and elsewhere, took a passive role, without much follow-up.

Here's part of Tuesday's discussion about how to address the talking points.

PLUNKETT: We do break the script. A good journalist can get people to talk about more than sometimes we give them credit for. I think when you start to think about the election in general, you remember all those scripted moments, and you're frustrated by it. It's annoying. You wish people would just answer the question. And that creates a very human reaction in you, and you react to it, in a hostile kind of way. But I do think, if you think back, there were tons of stories written by lots of people on the campaign trail, and we did get into issues. We did look at important moments.

STOKOLS: I think as a journalist you have to draw out and just explain to people when somebody's not answering the question, sometimes. Whether you show that in a TV format or in a print format, you just say, you know, "...has refused to answer this question repeatedly throughout the campaign," or, whatever it is. I think that should be revealing to people, you know, like Chuck said. Sometimes, there's not a lot more you can do.

Durango Herald's MARCUS: Yeah, I agree. And I also agree that it is tougher in print. I mean, when I was pushing Cory Gardner on, you know, what the difference is between the state Personhood initiative and the federal bill, you know, it's weird to write that into the story. It's like, "The Durango Herald pushed Gardner on..." You know, and how many times can you write that? And are people even understanding what's going on in the exchange, that you're on the phone, or conducting your interview in person, we're just asking the same question over and over in different ways? It gets hard to write it into a story. But more importantly, you can't make them break the script. I STOKOLS: Well, you know, we have to be a little analytical. I mean, we can't just sit there. we're not stenographers.

MARCUS: Right

STOKOLS: So, you know, when you sit there on a campaign bus, and Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are sitting there, and the national reporters are asking, you know, like, "President Obama, he's not here. Is he killing you?" And they're like, "Oh, no! It's fine!" Whatever. And then, you know, they go on background, and they're like, "Jesus! The President is killing us!"

MARCUS: Right! What do you do? Yeah, what do you do?

STOKOLS: It doesn't take a lot of analysis to understand, one, what the reality is, and two, why they can't explicitly say that, or admit that, doesn't mean we can't write it, and explain that to the reader or the viewer, that, look, this is a fundamental reality of this campaign, whether it is admitted to or not admitted to, you know, by the candidate.

MARCUS: Yeah, you may not get them to break the script. You can write it in, because of what people tell you on background and everything. But you're not going to quote them on it,

RICCARDI: Yeah, I totally agree. If you're just waiting on these guys to tell you something, the yield-to-effort is minimal.

Asked why more of gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez's extreme comments were not covered, some of the journalists on Tuesday's panel explained that it's difficult to address an issue if the campaign isn't focusing on it.

RICCARDI: I also think this is a great example of how campaigns define a lot of what you end up covering. Hickenlooper ran a positive campaign. Hickenlooper did not put these past statements of Beauprez in the public light repeatedly, therefore there were other things that reporters had to focus on with their limited time. Look at how much ink we spilled over Gardner on two measures that will probably never become law. Right? And that's a direct reflection of the fact that the Udall campaign and their allies put a lot of time, attention to creating points behind those issues. And I think you're seeing the opposite of it in terms of what happened on the governor's side. Hickenlooper did not want to make that an issue, and guess what, it didn't become a big issue. I agree with Chuck, it's a balancing act [on how much coverage old candidate statements should get]. There's no--there's no clean formula for anything in this business. But I also think this is a great example of how a lot of our coverage reflects the choices being by campaigns, for better or for worse.

STOKOLS: Yeah, the governor's race was about the Governor because the Governor made it that way. I mean, he didn't come out and do a lot of campaign events, but when he went to the sheriffs, and Kelly's folks got that on video, that was a huge pivot in the campaign. And there were other things that he did --the comments to CNN earlier in the year, in answering a hypothetical question. There were mistakes that he made that we were sort of forced to cover. Whereas, some of these [Beauprez] statements, they matter on some level, but they have a shelf life. And so, when, you know, you're running ads based on a 2006 statement, it does seem harder sometimes to rationalize going back and covering this, just because you've got a, you know, a 527 or somebody calling you and saying, "Hey, you know, did you see these statements? You should cover these. You should do a story." Sometimes, you need more than that to be pushed off the ledge, especially when you look around and your colleagues aren't doing it. It's not like we all run around in packs, but when you're going to go out and do a story yourself, and you're going to be first, and you're going to rationalize something that is just really aimed at putting another campaign or a candidate on the defensive, you have to be pretty careful about that, I think, in terms of, you know, have we covered this before, right? I don't know what the exact formula is but--

MARCUS: There is no formula, but I think, for me, a component is also gauging, you know, interest, from outside groups, from the public...You know, at the beginning of the campaigns, a lot of the outside groups were really trying to push these 2006 talking points and comments and things like that. And you could just see, it wasn't gaining traction -- forget in the media, it wasn't gaining traction on twitter -- it wasn't gaining traction. And it wasn't because, I'm pretty sure, that these outside groups--and I know some of you are in the room, so I'm sorry -- but, you didn't have that much. The fact that you were going back to 2006, back to 2008 shows that it was--it was all you had. And it wasn't gaining traction, not because we weren't covering it--perhaps maybe possibly a little bit, but it really had to do with people's interests. I didn't see these statements coming back up. I think the closest we got was "Both Ways Bob" came back for a short minute, there. But, I was just looking around. I wasn't seeing it gaining traction. It seemed like people were looking to move on, find out what this election was about, and I think that plays into how much attention it gets with the media, as well.

The event, which was sponsored by the University of Colorado Denver's School of Public Affairs, Compass Colorado, and BigMedia.org, was attended by political operatives and others from both sides of the political divide. There were about 40 people in the audience.