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How The News is covering the 2016 campaign

In a New York Times article two weeks ago, a UCLA political science professor cited recent research that found “partisans surprisingly willing to discriminate against people who are not members of their political party.”

The professor’s conclusion: “We’ve entered an age of party-ism.”

It is tempting to believe we live in particularly nasty political times. That forgets that a sitting vice president once killed a former secretary of the Treasury in a duel, a member of the House once beat a U.S. senator unconscious – on the Senate floor – and that riots occurred outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. And of course, we were once so divided that we fought a Civil War.

It isn’t that bad these days, but political science research does suggest our political climate has changed. We have sorted ourselves geographically, making it less likely we live and work with people who hold different political views. And surveys since the 1990s show party affiliation increasingly aligned with attitudes on race, religion and ethnicity.

The changes are reflected in news coverage. For three decades, partisans have increasingly sought reporting that starts with their point of view, from conservative talk radio to liberal bloggers to Fox News to MSNBC.

For organizations like The News, this complicates our work.

At The News, we have an old-fashioned determination to report without a point of view. In an increasingly partisan time, The News aims to present every side in the political debate fairly. That doesn’t mean we avoid tough coverage. But while others flood the public square with opinion and invective masquerading as news, we aim to give everyone the same scrutiny, pushing past sounds bites and platitudes and the campaign message of the day.

In planning coverage by News reporters and choosing stories from wire services, we look for:

Stories that go beyond the podium. Too much daily campaign coverage is about the campaigns’ theme of the day or the cable news/blogosphere combat of the day. When a story about campaign machinations sheds light on a candidate’s management or leadership, it may tell you something important. When it dwells on charges and countercharges, the smoke usually obscures the light.

Insight into what candidates will do. Campaign websites have position papers on issue after issue, but smart stories go deeper. How much do candidates care about an issue – are their positions deeply felt or lip service? How have the candidates managed the trade-offs that are an inevitable part of governing? Do the candidates have personal or financial ties that might affect what they do?

How does a candidate’s character or style affect what he or she might do? The 2000 presidential campaign wasn’t about al-Qaida. The 2004 campaign wasn’t about the housing bubble. Stories about character and style give us a chance to assess how candidates will respond to the unanticipated.

How the campaigns try to manipulate you. Presidential campaigns are sophisticated marketing machines that, all too often, molest the truth. It is painful to watch guest after guest on cable news march through the talking points of the day. We like stories that make you smarter about how the campaigns try to manipulate you.

Rooting interest. Horse race coverage gets a deservedly bad name. But large parts of the electorate have made up their mind. They want to know how their candidates are doing. We rarely publish poll stories on Page One, but we look for smart stories that explore what voters are thinking and what that means for candidates.

Take pains to be fair. As the presidential candidates (and one presidential spouse) visited Western New York the past two weeks, we took care to display every visit in the same space and prominence on Page One.

But this Election Day, that conflicts with another tenet. With rare exceptions, we don’t run candidate stories on Page One on election days. Our reasoning: It isn’t fair to give one side the last word as voters go to the polls. Our quandary: Monday night, Republican candidate Donald Trump has a rally in downtown Buffalo.

The 2016 presidential campaign has been gaseous, fractious and messy. Sometimes it has been responsible. Lots of times it hasn’t.

Democracy is wonderful.


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