Journalism Conference Focuses On Statehouse Coverage
By Warren Epstein, Special to Stateline
More than 100 journalists from 34 states and the District of Columbia are meeting in Denver this weekend to examine the state of state government reporting and share ideas for improvements. The Committee of Concerned Journalists surveyed statehouse coverage at six newspapers (The Denver Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The St. Petersburg Times, The Indianapolis Star, The Dallas Morning News and The Austin American Statesman) during the final 60 days of the legislative session in Colorado, Florida, Indiana and Texas.
Committee spokesman Tom Rosenstiel presented the group's findings at the conference at Denver's Westin Hotel, which attracted more than 100 state-house reporters from 34 states and the District of Columbia.
The study, which was commissioned by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Pew Center on the States and the Princeton Survey Research Associates, dissected news stories in a variety of ways. One way was to look at a story's focus, or simply, "What is the story most about?"
The No. 1 answer: politicians.
Further down the list were education, environment and development, transportation, legislative and executive relationships, gun control, crime, taxes, legislative background information and the functioning of state agencies. Welfare reform and consumer issues each received less than one percent of all stories and agriculture didn't even make the list.
It's not enough for a story about public policy to be important.
Readers have to read it.
"Make people mad," was a city editor's mantra that inspired Portland Press Herald reporter Barbara Walsh.
Walsh, one of four panelists in a conference session titled, "Making Policy Issues Hit Home," talked about how she got her readers mad, sad and more politically involved with a package about Maine's love affair with alcohol. It talked about the cost of alcohol, in property destroyed and lives lost.
"We put a human face on it," she said. She looked at the families killed in a fire, with mom and dad passed out in the living room. She looked at a family so financially ruined by a father's death in a DUI-related crash they can't afford a grave marker.
Jon Greenberg, senior editor at New Hampshire Public Radio, took another route to engage the public - through the Internet.
He needed an innovative way to get into taxes, not an easy subject to broach in New Hampshire.
To get listeners involved in a discussion about taxes, Greenberg and his colleagues created a web site that can be customized to inform every user about the impact of proposed tax legislation that would help finance New Hampshire public schools. They can just type in their income, where they lived and several other variables, and a calculator would figure out how much they would be taxed under various proposals.
Participants in the conference were told that the statehouse will continue to be a vital beat because of the transfer of power and responsibility for an array of domestic programs from Washington, D.C. to the 50 state capitals.
William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the federal government is delegating more and more authority to the states.
But, he says, the states face growing pressures, such as the globalization of trade and technological changes in the way business is conducted that threaten important revenue streams.
Investigative reporters received a toolbox full of information-gathering tips from the Baltimore Sun's Walter Roche Jr., who talked about how he caught officials stealing everything from cars to eye balls.Roche shared trade secrets about how to use public records, play out an interview and rifle through trash when you have to to get the big story.
The Power to the States conference was organized by stateline.org, the Colorado Springs Gazette, Investigative Reporters and Editors, National Conference of State Legislatures, Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the Associated Press Managing Editors. Additional help was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the School of Journalism at Metropolitan State College of Denver.