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Ombudsman

Scorecard: Stripes election coverage rises to meet 5 milestone moments

Like boulders that disrupt a rushing stream, sometimes big moments show how a newsroom handles the racing current of news.

In previous scorecards, I’ve tallied stories, photos, cartoons and op-eds to assess fairness, impartiality and thoroughness in the general flow of Stars and Stripes election coverage. In this column, I’ll concentrate on five milestone moments over the past five weeks: the GOP convention, the Democrats’ convention, the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, the disclosure of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment and the first presidential debate.

How did the Stripes newsroom do?

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Generally very well.

It’s clear that the editors took special care to balance the report. Sometimes that’s about visuals and volume, such as the nearly identical front-page photo and headline treatments, with two pages of coverage inside, when Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama accepted the nominations of their conventions. It’s also evident in most of the collections of stories from these big moments, such as the balanced “fact-check” of this week’s presidential debate. The more of that, the better. As usual, the opinion pages specialized in pairing op-eds or editorial cartoons to respect the mandate to show no favor.

Stripes also kept the political coverage in perspective, almost always leading the paper instead with relevant military news, such as the Navy buildup in the Persian Gulf, the danger to the defense budget posed by sequestration or the first deployment of Ospreys to Okinawa. In keeping with that good news judgment, the debate made the front page, but it was secondary to a special package of stories and photos about four families who have lost sons to insider attacks in Afghanistan. Similarly, of the five milestone moments, the Libya attack properly got the most sustained coverage, as its political implications were only one aspect of a continuing national security story that involved troop movements and threats beyond the deadly attack in Benghazi.

I did sense some gaps in campaign coverage, though I can’t say whether that’s because, by choice, I tend to be super-saturated in political news or because of the space and time constraints that bedevil any printed news product, especially a global enterprise such as Stars and Stripes.

Publishing worldwide makes it tricky to be timely on things that happen in U.S. prime time, including flare-ups such as Romney failing to mention the troops or the wars in his acceptance speech or the Democrats (temporarily) taking the word “God” out of their platform. Effectively, Stripes becomes an afternoon paper, specializing in analysis for those events, rather than breaking news. In some ways, that’s better for political coverage: Rather than being captive to the first, frantic cycle of reporting, it allows for some time and perspective in selecting stories. Other times, it can feel unavoidably a beat or two behind the news. In the age of 24-hour cable news and virtually unlimited, minute-by-minute information online, print’s limited space is a disadvantage — and that makes the editors’ choices all the more crucial.

Here’s a brief rundown on coverage of each of the five milestone moments.

• Shortened by Hurricane Isaac, the Republican convention nevertheless had a solid three days of coverage, highlighting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s opening speech, Ann Romney’s soft-edged speech about her husband, former Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s foreign policy warnings, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s criticism of Obama and Romney’s culminating acceptance speech. The sideshow that was Clint Eastwood’s puzzling performance rated a sidebar on the last day of coverage. Missing until it appeared on the op-ed page a couple of days after the convention was Romney’s omission of the war and the troops from his acceptance speech.

• The Democrats’ convention got a comparable “prime time” approach, with Stripes’ coverage highlighting the featured speeches by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and President Obama. A curtain-raiser before the convention offered a summary of the party platform, usefully drawing distinctions on health care, gay marriage, abortion and Medicare. That was before anyone noticed the removal of the word “God” from the platform, a talking heads controversy that later made it into Stripes’ convention roundup, including the fact that the Democrats had put it back.

• With good reason, Stripes ran more stories, photos and commentary on the terrorist attack in Benghazi and its aftermath than any of the other milestones — and more of it on the front page. This was much more than an election story, though its political angles briefly dominated the campaigns even as its security and foreign policy implications warranted sustained coverage. Raging across the Muslim world, the story led Stripes’ cover for three days, with extra space devoted inside the paper. The political fallout from Romney’s “quick draw” comment on the breaking news of the Benghazi attack was included, but not out of proportion. Stories continue to explore the security breakdown, the investigation and the pursuit of the people responsible for the attack, most of which reflect — politically speaking — badly on the Obama administration. It’s safe to predict that this will be a prominent element in the remaining debates between Obama and Romney on Oct. 16 and Oct. 22, both of which are slated to address foreign policy.

• Mother Jones magazine broke the story about Romney’s secretly taped comments deriding “the 47 percent” on Sept. 17. It quickly took over campaign coverage and has persisted as an issue up to this day. Reinforcing that “afternoon paper” timeliness problem, Stripes first picked up the story in conventional “second-day” style on Sept. 19, with Romney trying to limit the damage and the Obama campaign fueling the fire. It got little mention after that, except on the op-ed page in columns and cartoons. Of the five moments I’m calling milestones, this one got the least ink in Stripes. That’s the right ranking, though I would have liked to have seen more news coverage as the politics played out.

• As the first presidential debate approached, Stripes followed another classic “afternoon paper” strategy by presenting extensive preview and set-up coverage, both in the news section and on the op-ed page. Especially useful was the op-ed column using the Simpson-Bowles plan as a vehicle to compare the positions of Obama and Romney on fixing the federal budget. Print coverage of the debate itself — in late U.S. prime time — also required that “second-day” approach. The newsroom took advantage of the extra time to offer analytical coverage, in both news and opinion pages. Without cheerleading, the coverage made it clear that Romney came away from the stage in Denver with a winning performance and a big boost.

Between these five big moments, Stripes’ election coverage flowed steadily on, fairly pairing emphasis on Obama and Romney in stories about campaign events, poll results, fundraising reports and so on. Stripes reporters supplemented wire coverage with stories of particular relevance, such as the state of overseas absentee ballots or the candidates’ references — scant, so far — to veterans, the defense budget and other military issues.

As the next few weeks tick down to Election Day, the partisan noise will increase, the stakes in the election will sharpen and more voters and readers will tune in, more critically. In how it’s handled the steady stream of political news and the disruptions of big campaign moments to this point, the Stripes newsroom has established a solid, trustworthy base.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

Ernie Gates’ blog
 

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