Media’s legislative coverage requires two-step maneuvering

 By Kay Braddock

Editor’s Note: Whether by print, radio, television or Internet – those interested in the political goings-on of the 2009 Montana Legislature rely on their daily dose of coverage from an outside source. And more often than not, the information gleaned can trace its beginnings to the moment the pen hits the pages of a reporter’s notebook.
This second portion of a three-part series examining the behind-the-scenes workings of Helena politics and the players involved will take a closer look at those who process the news and how they do it.
Reporters. In some circles it’s as dirty of a word as lobbyists. But regardless of the negative connotations the word carries or curious mental images it may conjure, the truth remains, those notebook-wielding, pen-in-hand folks are relied upon to let the word out on the daily activities of today’s state lawmakers. 
Whether it’s sounding the alarm on bad behavior, or worse yet, bad legislation, or simply accounting for the slow and arduous movement of a particular bill’s course through the legislative process, a Capitol reporter’s fundamental job is to tell a lawmaking story.
“It’s not rocket science on figuring out what you’re going to cover,” Lee Newspapers’ state bureau reporter Mike Dennison said of the method of picking and choosing which legislation to follow. 
With a readership of 125,000, Dennison, along with his compatriots Charles Johnson and Jennifer McKee, make up the Lee Newspapers state bureau. The three print reporters cover Capitol news in four of Montana’s major newspapers – The Billings Gazette, Missoulian, Montana Standard and Helena’s Independent Record.
With that kind of coverage in a state that boasts just under a million citizens, the adage, “The power is in the pen,” can hold special meaning. 
It’s a role Dennison says he doesn’t take lightly. 
Filtering the news
“There’s some truth that reporters are biased,” Dennison acknowledged, noting reporters come to the Capitol as individuals, with their own personal opinions on proposed legislation.  
But Dennison says he gauges the objectivity of his reporting less on his own existing opinions and more on the accurate portrayal of those he’s covering. He wants those who are interviewed to say after reading an article, “What I said (in the article) is what I thought I said.”
Picking and choosing which bills to follow can also present objective challenges.
“I think that is the most subjective thing we do,” Dennison said, but noted there are clear guidelines to keep in mind when choosing which bills to cover. Examining issues that hold the greatest interest to the most readers or universal issues that have the most affect on readers are necessary factors to consider. Topics like healthcare coverage, school funding and energy development are all easy pickings.
Covering issues that readers will find just plain intriguing is a factor worthy of consideration as well.  
“The death penalty is just more interesting,” Dennison noted. 
When earlier in the session, supporters to abolish Montana’s death penalty approached him about covering the topic in committee, he recalled his initial reaction was, “Why? You bring this up every year.”
He agreed to cover the proposed bill if it made its way out of committee, a seemingly unlikely outcome. But it’s something the bill managed to do, eventually passing the Senate on a slim 27 – 23 vote. It has yet to be voted on the floor of the state House.
It’s that kind of daily selective decision that determine which Capitol activities will make tomorrow’s headlines, and which won’t. As a 17-year veteran covering state politics, Dennison noted that the filtering process he uses is based substantially on the experience he’s gathered in that time. 
John Barrows, Executive Director of the Montana Newspaper Association, pointed to the 2,300 bills originally drafted to be introduced at the start of the 2009 legislative session.
“That’s an awful lot of stuff to cover,” Barrows said of the 90-day biannual session. He noted it’s essential for reporters to filter through those bills and determine which are newsworthy and which aren’t. 
“That’s not biased, that’s selection,” Barrows said. He believes most complaints of biased reporting stem from a reader’s personal perception. 
“If you don’t agree with the story then its biased,” Barrows said.
Delicate dance
Republicans often complain news coverage contains a liberal slant and its one of the biggest misconceptions Dennison believes exists in the state’s Capitol media coverage. 
“I don’t know what to say to that,” Dennison said. “I’ve been hearing that for years.” 
“We’re writing for our audience,” he said, noting many of those readers live in small, rural areas, who are generally conservative. 
“I don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to make the Democrats look good, or make the Governor look bad,’” Dennison said. “That just doesn’t happen.”
University of Montana journalism professor Dennis Swibold, whose prior work at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle included covering state politics at the Capitol, agrees that the biggest misconception of Capitol media coverage is that it is “tailored by philosophy.”
“You’re nobody’s pet reporter,” Swibold said. 
Swibold points to the delicate dance reporters must perform. Reporters must keep an objective distance from legislators and lobbyists while at the same time ensuring accessibility to those same people.
Swibold, who recently released a book examining the history of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s hold on much of Montana’s daily press, points out that’s not to say cozy relationships between reporters and their subjects have never existed in Helena.
Dennison says keeping a distance from their subject matter is something he and his co-workers are keenly aware of and one they are willing to implement. 
“It just wouldn’t be right,” Dennison said of the possibility of friendships existing between lawmakers and reporters. 
“We want to maintain a professional relationship,” Dennison added. He recalled a recent after-hours social occasion that found he and other fellow reporters subtly discouraging a couple of legislators from joining their table. 
Prohibiting social settings like those from occurring helps prevent questions of partiality from arising, he said.
Coverage pitfalls
“A government is hard to cover,” Swibold added, noting one difficulty journalists find when covering the Capitol is reporting on legislation in a way that will be interesting to the reader. 
A common pitfall for any journalist is falling into the conflict or action coverage – merely going where there is conflict or where there is action, rather than giving issues the in-depth news coverage they often require, Swibold said.
Pointing to the public’s appetite for legislative coverage and to what amount it exists, Dennison believes a large part of a reporter’s job has less to do with reporting on the process and more to do with explaining how proposed legislation could potentially affect readers.
Swibold pointed to that same notion.
“You’re principle job is translating,” Swibold said, noting a major frustration most reporters have is covering behind-the-scenes stories. 
“I’m so busy telling you about what’s happening today,” he said of a reporter’s most common dilemma. Time is the primary factor preventing more in-depth coverage from occurring.  
Media coverage and public access
Besides the three Lee reporters, there is one reporter from each of the Great Falls Tribune and Bozeman Daily Chronicle newspapers, providing daily coverage of state politics. 
Also sharing the Capitol’s basement room, delegated for print journalists, is Molly Priddy a UM graduate student who writes for the Community News Service, a program headed up by Swibold and sponsored by MNA. The service provides news coverage of state politics for small dailies and weeklies throughout the state, as well as giving participating graduate students hands-on exposure to covering the Capitol. Currently 42 newspapers subscribe to the service, according to Swibold.
“There’s a lot fewer reporters than there use to be covering the session,” Dennison said, noting the Associated Press with a room of its own also has a reporter at the Capitol.   
Although there may be fewer reporters covering the Capitol, the media’s presence there has done anything but diminish, according to Barrows.
“I think the coverage is pretty darn good,” Barrows said. 
  Those looking to find more information about the state’s current Legislature are more likely to find it now more then ever before. That’s due in large part to the Legislature’s new Web site and the recently installed cameras housed in every committee room of the Capitol.
“There’s a lot of raw material out there,” Barrows said, pointing to the audio and video feeds available on the Web site, where visitors can either watch or listen to committee proceedings.  
“There’s a lot of tools out there for the reporter,” Barrows said.
Swibold agrees, pointing its all available for the general public to consume.
“There’s just a lot more ways to get involved,” he said. “The more openness, the more transparency, the better.”
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