Reconnecting citizens and government:

Reynolds Fellow to tackle community election coverage

Reporting on local elections to help voters make more informed decisions is one of the most important roles a newspaper can play. Unfortunately, many small community newsrooms struggle to provide adequate coverage if they provide it at all, said Scott Swafford, senior city editor at the Columbia Missourian in Columbia, Mo. 

The deficiencies drove Swafford to pursue a fellowship this fall at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. His goal is to help news leaders provide better coverage and convince them of the necessity of coverage. 

Swafford’s background includes 28 years of experience working as a reporter and editor for small Missouri newspapers. He also teaches reporting classes as an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Troubling discoveries

Swafford learned about the lack of coverage while conducting research for his master's thesis. He wanted to determine whether community election news was dominated by articles written about candidates’ strategies and tactics, polling, campaign finances and who is seen as winning the election game. This sort of “horse-race” reporting often is seen in coverage of federal elections and lacks substantive discussion about the issues and candidates' backgrounds, he said.

Swafford discovered very little horse-race reporting in community newspapers’ coverage of local elections. He also found that there was little substantive coverage at all.

The lack of coverage frustrated him because he feels municipal election coverage should be one of the top priorities for community newspapers.

“I’ve always felt strongly that local government has much more influence on the citizens than even state and federal government,” he said.

Swafford’s thesis committee suggested he take his findings and concerns and further explore them as a fellowship project at the RJI. Swafford is one of three faculty members from the Missouri School of Journalism who will be completing a fellowship during the upcoming academic year. His fellowship class is the largest in RJI’s history with a total of nine fellows for the 2013-2014 academic year.

Fellowship proposal

Swafford’s proposal includes creating a workshop curriculum for editors and reporters from small community newspapers. The fellowship will focus on recruiting Missouri newsrooms to participate in workshops at RJI, or in webinars or hosting Swafford’s team for a training day at their newsroom.

He wants to share helpful, feasible suggestions with news leaders about topics including constructive campaign finance reporting, the importance of issue coverage and candidate personality profiles.

After the workshops, the team will urge news leaders to implement some of the suggestions into their coverage. He hopes a survey with the organization’s audience before and after the workshops will demonstrate an increase in coverage and change in audience behavior.

Why the lack of coverage?

Swafford said that although he doesn’t have all the answers to the causes of the deficiencies, he has a couple of hypotheses.

• Newsrooms are cutting coverage because of a lack of resources and time.

However, Swafford said because of the importance of this coverage, newspapers’ focus should shift during elections to ensure that candidates and issues are being covered.

• Newsrooms often are staffed with young, inexperienced journalists.

He recalls being a young reporter who didn’t spend much time covering elections.

“I was right out of college,” he says. “I didn’t recognize how important this stuff was. Part of it comes from living life. The more you grow up - you become a taxpayer, and you own a home. You start to recognize what sort of impact local government has on you.”

Impact of better coverage on news organizations/voters

Swafford said better coverage makes sense from a business perspective if more news products are purchased. Improved coverage could also impact voter behavior.

“If the research shows that if a newspaper invests the time and resources that it takes to do election coverage really well and we can show that it translates into more audience engagement, more audience attention to elections, more voter participation… if we could see that more people are voting as a result of being more informed of what’s on the ballot, that would be the pot of gold,” said Swafford.

Contact: 

Jennifer Nelson
Reynolds Journalism Institute
573-884-5599
nelsonjenn@rjionline.org

About the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute
The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute works with citizens, journalists and researchers to strengthen democracy through better journalism. RJI seeks out the most exciting new ideas, tests them with real-world experiments, uses social science research to assess their effectiveness and delivers solutions that citizens and journalists can put to use in their own communities.

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Quotes

“I’ve always felt strongly that local government has much more influence on the citizens than even state and federal government.
Scott Swafford, senior city editor at the Columbia Missourian newspaper