Start benchmarking performance of politicians
By Jim Pumarlo
It’s customary to rate the president’s performance after the first hundred days in office. The stark contrast in personalities and policies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden provides plenty of observations and commentary. National issues range from the pandemic and the economy to immigration and racial unrest.
As we pass that benchmark, newsrooms should take a cue and seize the opportunity to check in on officials elected to local and state bodies, too.
The stories are valuable in at least a couple of respects. First, they provide substantive public affairs content beyond just reporting on meetings or specific votes. Second, these reports can be the beginning of building a resume of politicians’ work which will come in handy when preparing coverage for the next election cycle.
Certain questions can be explored and analyzed in any story, whether elected officials are newcomers or veterans and no matter on what body they serve.
- Review their campaign platforms. Are their initiatives gaining any traction? Some of their ideas may be accomplished in short order; others may be longer-term proposals.
- How are they addressing the increasing level of partisanship that seems to permeate so many levels of government?
- Elections can produce new voting blocs and, as a result, change the dynamics of governmental bodies. That may be easily noticeable when individuals run on a party label. It’s less evident where office-holders are not elected on a partisan basis. Reporters who regularly cover these bodies are in excellent position to analyze the changes and preview what might be in store for citizens during the short term and long term.
- How do lawmakers navigate, balance their actions and votes when their personal priorities and philosophies might not align with their constituents?
- What has been their role in committee or party leadership?
- Have they authored or been the lead on specific initiatives?
- What are their overall goals for their first year in office? How will they define success?
This is but one checklist. Strike up a brainstorming session in your newsroom, and you’re likely to identify other questions – especially if there were circumstances specific to a race. Don’t be afraid to solicit ideas from others in the office as well as key individuals in the broader community who watch public affairs closely.
Election coverage, even if well organized, is challenging and chaotic for newsrooms as you weave in the extra responsibilities with the everyday churn of news. Reporters often face a regular barrage of press releases from candidates and their campaigns. As a result, many election stories may focus on a candidate’s ability to campaign rather than an ability to govern.
That’s why election coverage should not shut down when the winners are announced. It’s a worthwhile exercise for staffs to review the election edition periodically and refresh themselves about what the voters said and what the victors promised.
Many candidates mostly receive a free pass on answering the tough policy questions in the heat of the election season as they often spin campaign rhetoric. Reporters have a better opportunity to follow and analyze actions once the winners have been seated and the dynamics of the governing bodies take shape.
The 100-day report card should be considered a starting point. Identify other appropriate times to check in with elected officials. It may be once or twice a year, or more frequent if circumstances warrant. These stories will hold lawmakers and governing bodies accountable and will provide meaningful public affairs content for readers.
Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at email@example.com.