You probably know that big city newspapers around the country have cut staff–and then made more cuts on top of those. Now, the question is: Can journalists give November’s election the attention it deserves, so we the people have the information needed to make rational decisions in the ballot box?

Journalists can still give us the coverage we need, even with shrunken newsrooms, but they have to try not to be manipulated by candidates. Reporters need to take the time to fight politicians who think that busy journalists will willingly serve as conduits for campaign talking points.

Here’s an example of what journalists should not do:

In Colorado’s U.S. Senate race, former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton has been quoted in just three articles in The Denver Post since she launched her campaign in September. In the last 23 weeks, she’s been quoted directly just on once in the state’s major newspaper.

Mind you, Norton’s name has appeared in the Post. But when she’s quoted, she talks through her spokespeople or via news releases. So when you follow Norton’s quotes in the Post, you’re mostly getting controlled information from her campaign. She’s been quoted via spokespeople or news releases in 13 articles since September.

What this means is that Norton has barely been quoted in a two-way conversation with reporters at all. They’ve run her statements in the newspaper without questioning her, without pressing her for more information or clarification. They’re lapping up her news releases and words from spokespeople.

Well, you may be thinking, the election is a long ways off. Maybe reporters haven’t had any reason to phone up Norton and chat with her.

Actually, Norton, who’s the leading Republican candidate in the race, has made a string of extreme statements that are of clear news value and should have grabbed the attention of Denver Post journalists.

For example, a few weeks ago she stated that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, implying that it’s nefarious and unstable, but the Post apparently hasn’t queried her about this.

Norton told a small gathering in February that she supports a national sales tax and a flat tax, but the Post never questioned her directly about this radical restructuring of the U.S. tax code.

In January, she stated that “rights of terrorists are more important in this administration than the lives of American citizens.” Nothing’s appeared on The Denver Post’s news pages about this unsupportable claim.

Norton stated in December that she favors eliminating the federal Department of Education, and Post readers haven’t heard directly from the candidate on the matter. Her spokesperson told the Post, “It’s a holiday. Nobody cares.”

Why haven’t Post reporters conversed with Norton about these serious matters? They’ve managed to speak directly with Norton’s Democratic opponents for quotes in a dozen articles.

I think the answer has everything to do with the fact that The Denver Post, like other big city dailies, is short-staffed and reporters are doing 17 things at once these days. It has nothing to do with laziness or bias at the newspaper.

Reporters are so busy they may not even realize they’ve been quoting Norton’s spokespeople and news releases almost all the time and, in the process, serving campaign-scripted and controlled information to the public.

That’s bad for the political process, no matter what side of the political fence you sit on.

The solution is for reporters to return to journalistic fundamentals and insist on talking to candidates directly–not their spokespeople or surrogates. If candidates won’t talk, or delay beyond deadline, then reporters should tell us that a candidate “refused comment.” That’s better than regurgitating news releases and canned statements.

It may be time-consuming, but even in today’s shrunken newsrooms, election coverage should be given priority and reporters should carve out time to talk directly and regularly to political candidates.

A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is Board Chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits.

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