EDITOR’S COLUMN: What we heard from readers about campaign coverage

Les Zaitz, editor and CEO, Salem Reporter

Voters in the community want Salem Reporter to be tough on those running for office.

That’s clear from the results of a survey we conducted recently. We asked you which issues were important to you, what you would ask candidates, and how Salem Reporter can best serve voters’ needs.

More than 350 responded. And what you said is tremendously helpful to the news team at Salem Reporter.

The answers to one question set the tone for me as I reviewed your answers. The question was: Concerning campaign claims by candidates, how important to you is fact checking by the press?

The result: 91% selected “very important” and another 5% selected “important.”

And you don’t want thin reporting or a focus on personalities. Those responding indicated what would help them most in evaluating candidates, picking two choices. At the top were “issue positions” (71%), “specific proposals by candidates” (47%) and “campaign donor details (31%). Political experience was important to only 8%.

In comments, Salem readers pressed us to bore in on candidates. A sampling of those remarks:

•“Demand specifics from candidates. Do not accept interview answers that are general or unoriginal.”

•“Pin down candidates when they avoid questions and obfuscate. Keep probing until candidates take a stand, or at least give a reasonable answer, such as “I don’t know.”

•“Ask the questions that make powerful people uncomfortable and follow up until there’s nothing left to follow.”

The online survey, not scientific by any means, asked what questions people would ask candidates if they could do the questioning. Readers are interested in performance by their public officials and in seeing elected officials get something done. A sampling of what readers would ask those who want to hold public office:

•”What specifically will you do differently? What specifically do you think is being done incorrectly now? Specifics!”

•”What would you do to bring together divergent populations in your area? How important is service to underserved populations in your area?”

•”What is your PLAN to achieve your stated goals and can you provide an example of how you have used compromise to reach a stated goal?”

•”Are you beholden to a party to vote how they wish?”

On issues facing Salem, housing and homelessness, the local economy, racial justice and climate change came up again and again as topics readers wanted us to explore. This is especially interesting since we didn’t provide possible issues, but instead left it open to those responding to come up with their own suggestions.

Given the unease about potential election fraud, the survey quizzed Salem readers about those concerns. The top three concerns: “Mail delays,” (33%), “Finding reliable information about candidates or ballot measures (24%) and “ballot drop box access/availability” (12%). As a result, we’re planning careful reporting on how Oregon’s mail-in ballot system works and explain the handling of ballots dropped into those boxes.

And 93% of those responding said it would be “very” or “somewhat” useful for Salem Reporter to provide information on what mistakes voters make that get their ballots rejected. Plan to see reporting from us on that soon.

One reason we did the survey was to get a sense of how readers wanted us to do our jobs covering the election. We focus on local issues and races and our team wanted to know what we could do to be seen as credible. Our journalists are mindful that across the U.S., there is considerable distrust of the media.

Asked what Salem Reporter could do to build trust in its political coverage, 47% wanted a “clear identification of sources,” 30% wanted a “focus on issues,” and 11% wanted “equal coverage of candidates.”

That’s all doable, particularly when it comes to citing where we get our information. Our stories are and will continue to be transparent on that point.

The survey also asked readers to step into the role of editor. We asked what you would tell our reporters as they work on election coverage. The answers were thoughtful and clear – you want us to get you the facts, you want us to skip any bias, and you want to be left to judge for yourself how to vote. Here’s a sampling of those comments:

•”Cut through the noise and disinformation – remind people that Oregonians have been voting by mail for over 20 years and that the process is safe and secure.”

•“Remain UNBIASED, to tell only the truth, provide sources and to cover the positives and negatives fairly and accurately.”

•“If it is a lie, don’t sugar coat it – call it a lie.”

•“Somehow make people believe that your reporting is honest and without bias. It is not your paper’s fault, but I know I do not trust the media anymore because of their insane biases that are totally obvious most of the time.”

•“Tell the truth in as unvarnished and clear a way as possible. Omit biases from reportage.”

•“Be a voice of reason, clarity, and get at the truth.”

•“Clear, concise writing. Spelling things out for voters. Writing stories in such a way as to make the voting process very easy for readers. That includes fair-minded, unbiased writing about candidates and issues.”

•“There needs to be CLEAR and FACTUAL info about voting and the overall process. Some behind the scenes of the process would be helpful as well. But be clear, concise, and factual!”

With this counsel, the news team at Salem Reporter will be on guard in every story to watch for anything that can be considered bias. We won’t shirk our duty to tell the truth and our duty to help the Salem community vote with knowledge.

Collectively, you have given those of us at Salem Reporter clear and high expectations. My promise to you is we will do everything within our professional skill and resources to meet them.

Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter. Reach him by email: [email protected].

SUPPORT SALEM REPORTER’S JOURNALISM – A monthly subscription starts at $5. Go HERE. Or contribute to keep our reporters and photographers on duty. Go HERE. Checks can be sent: Salem Reporter, 2925 River Rd S #280 Salem OR 97302. Your support matters.