Module JD120

Political Journalism

Module author

William Minutaglio

The University of Texas at Austin

Learning objectives After you have completed this module, you will be able to:
  • Discuss the ongoing importance of practicing effective political journalism;
  • Begin the process of reporting and writing on political elections;
  • Explain the differences between "horse race" political coverage and more in-depth political journalism;
  • Personally weigh the various challenges that emerge when you wish to express your own political beliefs;
  • Begin developing sources in political journalism and how you can establish a working relationship with those sources;
  • Decide how to proceed as you begin doing political reporting at the local, regional, national or global levels.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: The Basics of Political Reporting
2.1 Know The History
2.2 Reportorial Neutrality
2.3 Finding Political News Sources
2.4 Getting The Numbers Right
2.5 The Golden Rule of Quotes
2.6 It Takes Time

Chapter 3: Topics in political journalism
3.1 Covering Political Elections/Races/Debates
3.2 Covering Politicians In Office
3.3 Covering Political Controversies
3.4 Covering Local Politics, Community Politics, Neighborhood Politics
3.5 Covering Regional Politics (Regions, States, Counties, Districts, etc.)
3.6 Covering National Politics
3.7 Covering Global/International Politics

Study points 2
Preview Political Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Political Journalism is important

Political journalism is becoming ever more important, as the role of government in both domestic and foreign current events becomes larger and larger. Political journalism is a critical part of this process, because accurate and clear reporting can hold people in power accountable for their words and actions. It is also a good way to get involved in major world events.

The current approach to journalism involves taking advantage of social media and modern technology to the fullest extent. This creates what is known as the 24 hour news cycle- there is always news coming out, and that applies as much to political journalism as any other area. Political scandals and conflicts can take place at any time, and modern journalists need to be capable of reporting not just accurately, but quickly. A journalist at any outlet faces rapid competition from other media outlets, so speed is critical.

On the other hand, having original content is also a major advantage. Long stories, painstakingly developed from investigation, are just as valuable as up-to-the-second factual updates. The right media outlet has a proper balance between deep, thoughtful, and unique content and rapid response teams that can keep their finger on the world's pulse.

That puts the contemportary political journalist in a difficult position. He or she needs to develop the awareness and skill to respond to events in the moment, making judgement calls about what facts are critical and which to discard. On top of that, to bring in viewers, it is important to conduct long term research projects that are of general interest and relevant to current events. The two skillsets are related, but they aren't the same, and a well-trained journalist needs to be proficient in both.

This kind of flexibility demands a wide breadth of background in different kinds of political coverage as well as a thorough understanding of the fundamental rules of journalism. These fundamentals are not just for form- they help budding reporters tease out the important facts, remain objective, and condense the information into a clear and illustrative news item. It all comes down to the audience and their interests. Without understanding the basics, it is impossible to master the advanced tactics of reporting in a variety of different venues.

For that reason, this course unit in political journalism is a powerful tool for budding reporters who need to get a firm grasp of the basic elements to political journalism. Whether it is getting quotes, interviewing key figures, building a network of sources, or writing to reach specific audiences, reporters need to master these skills before they can do any political reporting.


Overview of the module

After a short introduction, this mdoue is split into two parts. The first of these is called "Basics of Political Reporting." It proceeds smoothly through a number of topics that are essential for every political journalist. The first topic is the history of political journalism. It is important to understand the history, the big figures of the past, and the way political journalists used to operate. Being able to compare and contrast past techniques with modern ones lets political journalists betters understand what works and what is effective in contemporary political journalism.

The next lesson is about neutrality. Aside from the opinion page, every piece a political journalist writes should be neutral in tone. This is a delicate balancing act that means political journalists have to bring in opposing sources and avoid casting value judgements on the story's participants. The goal is to convey information to readers and voters- not tell them how they should feel about it. There is more than one way to slant a story- failing to incorporate opposition viewpoints, deliberately choosing quotes to make one side appear better, and so on. Political journalists, more than any other kind of journalist, need to be able to report on an issue both accurately and from a neutral point of view. It is a fundamental part of the ethics of journalism.

The following lesson is about developing sources. Journalism requires at least as much people skills as writing skills. It is not easy to build a network of sources who trust you with intimate information about political issues. They need to be sure that they can speak anonymously if they wish. On the other side of that, you need to see how cultivating a source is not just about getting a scoop for one story. Think very carefully about betraying a source's trust. While it might help you make one story really pop, you may very well also lose that source for good. In most cases, that is not a trade worth making.

Dealing with numbers in journalism is its own topic. This is especially true in political journalism, where national budget figures and similar numbers abound. It's about more that just double checking the numbers in a story. You have to be able to convey the numbers to the audience in the proper context. Someone in a hurry needs to be able to read the story and understand the magnitude of the numbers involved without needing to look it up elsewhere. For example, stories about corporate bonuses and salaries will involve numbers in the millions. Stories about the national budget will get into the billions. Stories about debt and worldwide economic growth probably reach into the trillions. Without some careful context, it is easy to make all of these categories sound similar to the casual reader.

The next topic is all about quotes. The most important thing to understand about political journalism and quotes is that you need to let the people speaking speak for themselves. They don't need a journalist to speak for them and attempt to interpret their position. There is a lot more to learn about quotes, but that is the most fundamental rule.

The last lesson in the sequence is about patience. A good story takes time and revision. It is true that modern media outlets shoot out instant updates for ongoing stories. However, readers find thoughtful and original information written well just as engaging. Stories like that take a lot of time to develop, and many trips to the copyeditors' table.

The second sequence of topics is all about different contexts for political journalism. Politics is a huge swath of modern life. It varies in scale from international conflict to local elections. Furthermore, there are so many different aspects to political journalism that it has become necessary to develop good rules of practice for a variety of different environments.

The first topic is political elections, races, and debates. This is an area where journalists need to be very careful about neutrality, because their actions have a small chance to influence the outcome of the race. The way a journalist writes about a candidate will affect how the public views that candidate. While this does not determine everything about a candidate's favorability, it does have an effect and journalists need to learn how to cover races fairly.

Covering politicians when they are actually in office is somewhat different. Rather than an ongoing story about two candidates struggling to win, the narrative becomes one of how politicians do their jobs and what issues they need to tackle. It is important to keep an awareness of what the public wants politicians to do and contrast that with the limits of what politicians are capable of delivering.

Political controversies are delicate. The journalist needs to have an appreciation for the viewpoints of all sides of the issue to make sure they do not appear slanted. Political controversies might be technical, social, or economic, and political journalists need the ability to quickly pick up the background for each conflict so they can write with knowledge of the subject at hand.

The next topic examines local politics. This might seem dull to outsiders, but the local voters often care about their local politics at least as much as national politics, because it has a major effect on their daily lives. City and neighborhood politicians have a significant amount of local power.

Regional politics, like state elections, are where the elections and politicians start to attract national interest. State laws can have national consequence, especially ones like drug laws and marriage laws. Many national figures enter politics at the state level.
National politics is the big leagues. The biggest issues and contentions all take place at the national level. This is where news happens fastest, and there are many politicians and issues to track.

Global politics is a different kind of coverage. It often entails more investigative work to make foreign politics easy to understand for a domestic audience. Sources and special knowledge are extremely important.

The module closes with a discussion of subjectivity and objectivity. It is possible to become known as a subjective reporter, but it is a difficult area and risky for journalists.