Primary coverage a balancing act for reporters

The Baltimore Sun

The Sun's coverage of the campaign leading up to Baltimore's Sept. 11 Democratic primary election is worth assessing - particularly in light of complaints that the newspaper devoted too much coverage to the front-running candidates. (For those who may have missed the election news, current mayor Sheila Dixon won the mayoral race decisively and incumbent Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake won the City Council president's race. The general election is the first Tuesday in November.)

To the reporters and editors, it made sense to focus more attention on candidates who, based on The Sun's polls, were attracting the most public support and were the most likely to win. But several lesser-known candidates and some readers saw this approach as a journalistic Catch-22. Without significant newspaper attention, it is difficult for a candidate to build support.

During the campaign, I received a number of complaints from readers and certain candidates about what they called unfair coverage. City Editor Howard Libit responded: "Some candidates wonder why they don't get equal coverage out of such events as an eight-person debate. But we're not stenographers, counting words to ensure each of those eight candidates gets an equal number of paragraphs in the next day's story. We make judgments and - absent major news - generally choose to focus on the front-runners within a debate or forum."

Candidates can build support and draw added media attention if their positions and personalities have appeal. Gov. Martin O'Malley was not considered a serious mayoral candidate early in the 1999 race and initially did not get much coverage. But as his campaign gained momentum, so did the amount of press attention he received.

Overall I think The Sun's primary campaign reporting was comprehensive and level headed. The newspaper framed the defining issues of crime and education. It explained interesting political trends such as the powerful role that women are playing in the city's political life and did a good job monitoring candidates' advertising claims and assessing the sources of campaign fundraising,

The Sun also used its Web site effectively to give online readers far more information than in past years. Reporter John Fritze assembled and posted mini-biographies of every major candidate for mayor and the editorial board posted candidates' responses to questionnaires.

Covering campaigns and elections well really comes down to the allocation of resources - enough reporters, editors, photographers and newshole must be available to give readers the best information possible. When making coverage decisions. editors and reporters must continually monitor polling data, campaign fundraising, community support, campaign organization, endorsements and each candidates' positions on the issues.

Several articles stood out in the final week of campaign coverage. Kelly Brewington's Sept. 6 metro cover piece, "Facing long odds, short money," acknowledged the frustrations of the lesser-known mayoral candidates. The article gave each candidate - Phillip A. Brown Jr., Andrey Bundley, Jill P. Carter, A. Robert Kaufman and Mike Schaefer - a reasonable amount of space to articulate their views and visions for the city.

Reporter Sumathi Reddy's Sept. 8 Maryland section front story, "In city politics women take charge," was timely, focused and in light of the election results, prescient. The story examined the political power of African-American women in Baltimore and how it infused Dixon's and Rawlings-Blake's campaigns. My only question is why the story failed to make the front page.

Reporter Fritze, who has worked many seven-day weeks this year and who along with Reddy was the primary Sun campaign reporter, offered these insights:

"I believe we have an obligation to give readers a sense of what all the candidates have to say on the issues, which is why we ran stories on crime and education that included each candidate's platform," Fritze said. "I do not believe, however, that we must cover all candidates with equal attention. We have the responsibility to focus our attention on candidates who have a good chance of winning, while keeping an open mind as we evaluate who those candidates are."

He also noted the perils of being considered a front-runner. "Being in the spotlight doesn't always mean you're getting positive coverage," Fritze said. "Dixon received more coverage than any other candidate because she was already the mayor. She is, and must be, held to a different standard. That's why when she misses forums, or employs her sister on her campaign or gives big raises to her staff, we write about it and it goes on the front page. Likewise with Councilman Keiffer Mitchell who, as her leading mayoral opponent, was subject to a much higher level of scrutiny when his father left the campaign than other candidates have been for their own campaign finance issues."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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