Covering Debates: Advice from Inside the Pressroom

When Rudy Giuliani’s aide, Tony Carbonetti, entered the press room, Mark Halperin turned on his video camera.

Halperin, editor at large and senior political analyst for TIME magazine, carries his camera with him whenever he’s reporting, he said, because there is almost always an opportunity to use multimedia reporting.

He video taped Carbonetti talking about the news that had just broken about questionable expenses that Giuliani billed. Following his interview with Carbonetti, Halperin sent the raw video to TIME. Shortly after, it was uploaded to his blog, The Page.

“If you’re not providing all content on all media, you’re not really fulfilling your maximum potential,” said Halperin, who joined journalists in covering the CNN-YouTube Republican debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., Wednesday night. He assigned letter grades to each candidate on his blog, giving the highest grade, a B+, to Mike Huckabee, and the lowest grade, a D, to Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo.

Samantha Hayes, national correspondent for CNN Newsource, also experimented with nontraditional coverage to capture colorful campaign moments. After the debate, as reporters talked to the candidates and local politicians in the spin room, Hayes stood in the middle of it all and held up her laptop, which she used to record a video of herself talking about the debate.

Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman, who has been doing video interviews with presidential candidates, noted that although reporters are finding new ways of using multimedia to cover the campaigns, there are a lot of other areas that need work.

“We don’t do enough to carefully look at the public actions of the people we cover. We don’t immerse ourselves the way we should. We spend too much time looking at the roots of their character and not enough time looking at how that character has played itself out in their public lives,” Fineman said. “We have an almost psychoanalytic approach too often. While it’s interesting to know what makes somebody tick, what really matters … is how they behave in their public actions.”

The YouTube debates, he said, are somewhat gimmicky and not especially helpful for journalists trying to get at the essence of a candidate’s stance on issues. “I think these debates aren’t really debates. They’re sort of group soundbite extravaganzas,” Fineman said. “What you want is some real conflict among the candidates or you want really tough follow-up questions. Otherwise you’re not going to get anything.”

“I wanted to ask him, and I want to ask Hillary, if they think Islamism is evil. Do they think Osama bin Laden evil? Is evil a meaningful word in modern life and in the world? I happen to think that’s the one thing George Bush said that most that most Americans agree with. Do the Democrats agree with it or not? That’s an example of a fundamental question. You don’t want to get lost in the details.”

Mark Silva, White House correspondent at the Chicago Tribune, said he believes the media give too much attention to details about who is and isn’t winning. “We’ve slumped back into this perennial horse race business, driven by the polls, who’s winning, who’s losing,” Silva said. “It’s absurd to focus on this frontrunner business when most people aren’t paying attention to the campaign. We fall prey to that every time.”

To a certain extent, he said, polls do drive coverage. Though Silva said he doesn’t have trouble remaining unbiased in his reports, the reality of having so many presidential candidates in one election means he can’t give all candidates equal time. “I’m not going to give equal rates, equal weight, in a 25-inch newspaper story,” Silva said. “Is that a bias? Yeah, I guess it’s a bias, but it’s a bias in a realistic sense.”

A few minutes prior to the start of the YouTube debates, Silva said he looks for the “gems” from voters, the questions that news anchors would not normally ask. YouTube provides a venue for such questions, Silva said, and makes the debates more entertaining, even if the format of the questions might seem silly or irrelevant.

Nick Anderson, an editorial cartoonist from The Houston Chronicle submitted three questions featuring animated characters. One of them aired. It was a cartoon of Dick Cheney asking candidates whether they would grant their vice president as much power as Cheney has had.

It’s these types of questions that can lead to answers that provide opportunities to add variety and different angles to a story, some say. “We’re looking for if someone did something that particularly changed the dynamics of the race,” said Jeremy Wallace, a political writer for the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota, Fla.

Before he joined the Herald-Tribune, Wallace said the paper didn’t have a political reporter. Now, the paper’s Web site features a “Political Insider” blog that Wallace frequently updates, but he’s still trying to figure out what works when covering campaigns and debates.

“I think everyone wants to be doing more blogging and podcasting,” he said. “But what’s working? It’s hard to tell. We’re trying to ‘be multimedia.’ But what does that mean? How do you judge what’s working?” Competing with larger news organizations can also pose a challenge, but one that helps reinforce the importance of more localized coverage for readers in Florida, Wallace noted.

Ephrem Kossaify of the Middle East Broadcasting Network said, “It’s very important to us as an Arab channel to focus our attention on the American system,” Kossaify said. “Americans take for granted how each state works. We always make sure to explain why each state is important in the system.”

The shrinking soundbite makes the explanatory aspect of political reporting that much harder, Kossaify said. To compensate for this, Kossaify produces 15-minute documentaries on particular issues to make room for longer, and sometimes more valuable, soundbites.

Kathy Kiely, Washington correspondent for USA Today, explained her process to writing a debate story, saying that readers generally only see a glimpse — 15 inches — of what she actually wrote throughout the night.

I met Kiely at the debate and followed up with her by e-mail. 

“Because our first-edition deadline sometimes falls before lips even start moving, we have to have a setup piece ready to go before the debate starts,” Kiely told me. “For 9 p.m. debates, we might only have time to drop in a couple of live quotes before we have to let the story go. Then we do a write-thru in about the middle of the debate and another at the end.”

She said that for Wednesday’s debate, she filed her setup piece around 6:30 p.m. for an interview she had at 7 p.m. She then changed this lead, she said, because of the opening confrontation of the debate.

“Deciding what issues to highlight is the hardest part when space is limited, and I usually spend the better part of the next morning second-guessing myself,” Kiely said. “I look for issues that I think people care about (immigration is a good example) or exchanges that illuminate a candidate’s personality (Huckabee’s joke about Jesus being too smart to run for public office, for instance).”

The campaign, she said, has presented a challenge about how, and when, to provide coverage of the candidates.

“… Everything is so fast-forwarded. I’m seeing a lot of the kinds of feature and analysis stories that normally you don’t see until much later in the cycle, and you’ve really got to wonder if people are going to spend a whole lot of time reading them when they are in the middle of preparing for the holidays,” Kiely said. “I think all of us are really worried about the next year: how to stay on top of a campaign that is going to seem endless by June without readers getting sick of it. That’s not the media’s fault. It’s a problem that the candidates and political parties, I think, really need to solve by the next presidential cycle or we may be having the Iowa caucuses on the next Inauguration Day.”

[What did you think of news coverage of the CNN-YouTube debate?  Did anything stand out as particularly noteworthy?]

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