SELLING THE STATEHOUSE
At the 2003 ACRE
conference, successful state capitol reporters shared their tips for
getting over the hurdles. These links
may also help.
Anyone who's ever been assigned to cover the statehouse for
television or radio knows it's a tough job. Not only do you
have to find ways of making the stories interesting, you have
to sell them to skeptics in the newsroom who tend to dismiss
these stories as inherently boring.
- Issues, not process. Avoid reporting the
process whenever possible, says Bill Werner of the Minnesota News
Network. People care about issues, not the legislative tick-tock.
"Where is the issue in the sequence to a final result?"
he asks. "Report it accordingly, or don't report it at all
if it's minor in the scheme of things."
- Get real. Don't overuse wonks, elected
officials, lobbyists, or spokespeople, says Werner. Look at how
the legislature's actions will affect "real people"
and include those people in your stories. But avoid over-reliance
on M-O-S interviews; people on the street may be unaffected and
have no real opinions to share. One of Werner's stories gauged
public reaction by using sound from people who called radio talk
- Elicit better sound. Insist
that officials junk the jargon. Kerri Miller
of KARE-TV says she looks people in the eye and tells them, "Speak
English." It usually works. If it doesn't, they don't make
- Set the scene. Use nat sound generously
to paint the picture, says Werner. Let your audience in on how
the Capitol really works, don't just skim the surface.
- Be the expert. Don't feel compelled to
include bites from analysts who can't explain things as well as
you can. "Remember that you, better than most, know what's
going on behind the scenes," says Werner. At the same time,
he warns, "Don't patronize your audience by reporting something
that's obvious and don't draw unsubstantiated conclusions or give
- Get help. Consider hiring a part-time
"legislative aide" or even an unpaid intern who can
help keep track of stories you won't be covering on any given
day. Look for a political science major as opposed to a journalism
grad, says Miller.
- Use the Web. Put information
that won't make it on the air onto your station's Web site, and
direct your "policy wonk" audience to the Web for more
- Keep your perspective. Get away from the
Capitol sometimes, not just to report on other stories but to
really take a break. "Goof off. Forget about politics. Ignore
the news," advises Werner. "Everything will still be
there when you get back."