Newspapers missing the story on local Reps

By DAVID F. BROWN, UPI Correspondent  |  June 22, 2004 at 10:47 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 22 (UPI) -- Voters often rely on newspapers to keep up with their congressional representatives in Washington. But many of those newspapers don't provide enough quality coverage of House members for their constituents, according to a new book.

"The average newspaper does not publish enough information about a representative's positions and actions for the average citizen to notice, read, and comprehend very much of the information," writes R. Douglas Arnold, a professor at Princeton University, in "Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability," (Princeton University Press, 304 pp. $35.)

In a presidential election year when the news media is focusing on the war in Iraq and other national security concerns, coverage of Congress has dwindled. But Arnold's research suggests this is not a new trend, particularly when examining coverage of individual representatives by their local papers.

Arnold studied news stories from 25 daily newspapers chosen at random from around the United States to examine the level of coverage each paper provided on local Congressmen. Arnold also looked at competitors of six of these papers to compare coverage in the same market.

In his research, Arnold found most papers that provide coverage of local representatives portray them only as position takers rather than committee leaders or sponsors of new bills.

"If you have a Congress full of position takers, nothing much is going to happen," he said.

Problematic to Arnold's books is that the data was collected during the 1993-94 congressional term, but the academician said he doubts that the general trends of reporting have changed, though specific newspaper's coverage may have improved or worsened.

"Some of the best papers were really covering what their representatives were doing," Arnold said in a phone interview. "[Congress] is fairly depicted as a place where committees matter, where committee leadership matters."

Arnold's results illustrate the disconnect that often exists between the national and local coverage of Congress at newspapers.

"The very large Washington bureaus largely use their Washington reporters to cover national news," Arnold said. Coverage of how local representatives vote is often reduced to a simple yea or nay, he said.

"It's one of the easiest things for newspapers to cover," Arnold said, noting that better coverage focuses on committee activity, coalition-building and leadership in shaping policy.

Arnold cited the Washington Post as an example of a paper with strong national reporting that doesn't integrate local congressmen into the picture.

Post Ombudsman Michael Getler said he has received reader feedback about policy stories not reporting how local representatives voted.

"The national desk tends to cover [Congress] as a national story," he said, acknowledging a disconnect between the Metro and National desks. "It may forget the local angle."

But Getler said he doesn't receive much reader feedback about local Congressional representatives.

"The bulk of the mail that I get has dealt with political issues that are national in scope," he said.

In Chicago, most news about local Congressional representatives appears in smaller newspapers rather than the Tribune and Sun-Times, according to Ira Cohen, press secretary for Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill.

"Members of Congress here are not necessarily at the very top of the news chain," Cohen said. "I wouldn't say the focus is on accountability of local representatives."

Cohen said the exception is when Congressmen are involved in ethical scandals, such as when former Democratic Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the longtime Ways and Means chairman from Illinois, was indicted on corruption charges.

Arnold's research shows intense coverage of Rostenkowski in the Chicago papers during the scandal.

But in less combustible times, national political coverage in large papers often leaves little room for in-depth analysis with regard to local issues and Congressmen, as Getler admitted. But Arnold's research found a large daily paper that provided exceptional coverage of both local Congressional representatives and the national issues confronting Congress as a whole.

"The Los Angeles Times has found a way to do both," he said.

Arnold said the Times provided outstanding coverage by taking advantage of its large Washington bureau to focus on local representatives.

"The LA Times consciously assigned four or five reporters to cover the local angle," he said, noting that these stories were routed to various regional editions of the paper in the Los Angeles area.

Given the vast resources of a paper like the Times, it may seem daunting for small papers to provide strong Congressional coverage. Yet Arnold found papers in Tulsa, Okla., Lewiston, Idaho, and Rock Hill, S.C., all offered in-depth coverage of local representatives in Congress.

Of particular note was the Tulsa World which, along with the Los Angeles Times and The Las Vegas Review-Journal, created a "rich informational environment" with regard to local representatives, Arnold said.

The World, with just one Washington correspondent, may have it easy. The entire state of Oklahoma only has five House members, and only one represents Tulsa.

"We're a small state," said Susan Ellerbach, managing editor of the Tulsa World. "We have to let people know what's going on and how that affects people."

Small towns and cities provide fewer distractions from local coverage according to Shane Saunders, press secretary for Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla., who represents Tulsa and the 1st District.

"The local interest is already built in," he said. "We're the only person representing the city of Tulsa."

But Ellerbach said it isn't easy for small papers to get the story.

"A lot of politicians, when they get to Washington, want to step on that national stage," she said. "Sometimes you forget about that guy who followed you in the state legislature."

Saunders admitted that national news outlets are often the priority.

"I'd like to tell you I'm going to call the Tulsa World first," he said, noting that he always returns every call. But if CNN or The New York Times come calling, he's going to talk to the news outlet that can reach the most people and get the story out the fastest, he said.

Arnold said he hoped his book would spur further research about decision-making among journalists about how they cover elected officials.

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