Monday, March 13, 2006

Cover elections

When covering election night parties, it's important to find an image to represent a win, a loss and a neutral situation. Then, the newspaper is covered under all circumstances.

Photos by Mark M. Hancock / © The Beaumont Enterprise

Ron Walker laughs with Rickey Collier of Beaumont during an election party at the Rockin A Cafe in Beaumont on Tuesday, March 7, 2006. Walker won the initial ballot count for county judge in the Democratic primary election, so this image ran in the final edition of the newspaper.

Ron Walker reflects for a moment during an election part at Rockin A Cafe in Beaumont. If Walker lost the initial ballot count, this image would run in the final edition of the newspaper.

Ron Walker (left) talks with (clockwise) Sebastian Young of Houston, former NFL player Jerry Ball of Houston and Calvin Williams Jr. of Beaumont during an election party at the Rockin A Cafe in Beaumont. For an early edition with no clear winner, this image could have run in the newspaper.

Why cover elections?

Several PJs view covering elections somewhere between prostate exams and root canals, but elections are actually the most important event we document.

Even at the local school board level, the elected officials control millions of tax dollars. At the state level, it's billions. Nationally, it's trillions.

In addition to fiscal responsibilities, many elected officials are additionally charged with the safety and security of residents (note the difference between hurricanes Katrina and Rita). Consequently, readers/taxpayers should be very concerned about who wins and loses these elections.

Fairness doctrine?
Before we begin, let's discuss a common misconception about newspapers. Newspapers are not required to be fair. Any newspaper could run house ads for any candidate and refuse to run an opponents' ads. Nothing can be done about it. Some partisan papers actually do similar activities, but they do so at the cost of losing readers and advertisers.

This is part of newspaper history. It's also part of freedom of the press.

However, it's often economic suicide to refuse ads or to give ads away. So, most papers happily take everyone's ads and try to stay relatively neutral except on the editorial page (I'll explain Op/Ed another day).

Television and radio transmitted over publicly-owned airwaves don't have the same luxury. According to Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1937, they are required to give "equal opportunity" to all legally qualified political candidates for any office.

Equal opportunity only means they must offer the candidates the same amount of time (paid or unpaid). If a candidate can't afford the same number of ads, tough. The same amount of time was offered, and the candidate(s) chose not to purchase the same amount of air time.

There are exceptions of course. Two significant exceptions include suspension of this rule for televised debates between the two major party candidates (excluding third party candidates). Broadcast journalists are also exempted from this rule to allow political interviews.

But what about the Fairness Doctrine?
The Fairness Doctrine was established by the FCC and not by Congress. As such, it was a regulation and not a law. Furthermore, it applied to controversial issues of public importance -- not to elections. As cable television emerged and the Reagan administration deregulated broadcast television, the FCC dissolved the doctrine in August 1987. However, Section 315 remains for publicly-aired television.

Where to shoot
The democratic process of peacefully electing leaders is by far mankind's greatest achievement. There is no need for violent upheavals when a government can be overturned through the ballot boxes.

Unfortunately, there is no "one size fits all" to covering elections. From what I can tell, each state, city and polling location is radically different in how they deal with PJs. In Dallas, I frequently shot folks voting inside the polls. In Southeast Texas, the election judges are completely different from location to location. PJs in Florida need riot gear and bail money.

As a general rule, walk into the polling place and ask for the election judge. Identify yourself and your organization and request permission to photograph the election process in general terms. Insist that you have no intention to shoot how people are voting nor ask how they voted. You merely want images of willing folks exercising their civic duties.

Typically, it's easy to get people to let you shoot them if you can get past the election judge. After all, they're proud they're voting. It's like folks who give blood. It's honorable to do both.

If turned away by the election judge at one location, keep trying other locations. Eventually, one lets (still) PJs in to document a fair election and show that nobody was busily stuffing boxes.

The back-up plan
If time is short and/or no election judges are being cooperative, PJs can always shoot outside the electioneering boundary (100 feet in most places). This line is marked with a notice. Beyond this distance, nobody can stop a PJ from shooting. It's not the ideal option, but if folks are working the parking lot, it can work.

Election parties
For major primary and final elections, election result parties typically exist. These are gathering places where the election workers for particular candidates or parties gather to await results and relax/celebrate after a long haul of herding voters to the polls.

Most election parties welcome PJs. This is their chance to celebrate their great victory and thank campaign workers with a soda and some barbecue. Whether the candidate wins or loses, it's advantageous for the candidate to have this documented and published.

These parties are typically held in a private residences or at supporting restaurants. The election reporters know where the party will be held or at least the cell number of the candidate to get the location.

Occasionally, PJs may get grief from someone at the party. This is often a result of campaign workers not knowing the difference between news staff and editorial page staff. On a rare instance, the candidate may not want to allow a PJ to cover the election party.

If this happens, take it as a gift, call the desk and go have dinner. ;-}

When to cover
Typically, smaller elections are only covered during meet-the-candidate events, open debates and on election night.

Only presidential campaigns are covered from beginning to end. Even then, the campaign trail is typically only covered when a local candidate is running or as long as there is a pack running for the party nomination. Once a finalist is put forward, coverage backs off to relatively equal coverage through election day. There are exceptions of course, but most general newspapers try to play relatively fair.

Who gets covered
Before we get into what's expected from PJs on election night, let's understand how the overall decisions are made for PJs. Obviously, PJs don't pick who they cover. They get an assignment, and off they go. They're expected to submit the same story-telling shots for any candidate.

Unopposed candidates are unlikely to be covered on election night. The result is predictable.

Competitions with 15 similarly-qualified candidates are also unlikely to be covered because only one hole exists in the paper per election category and the number of PJs is always limited.

Consequently, evenly-matched contests are most likely to be covered. Frequently, these contests are identified by early voting numbers (either even numbers going into election day or an unexpected lean toward one candidate).

The position which holds the most power (and tax dollars) rises to the surface of these contests. If a particular election also involves a "love them or hate them" ingredient, it blasts to the top of the assignment list.

When all these ingredients are present in a two-person election (primary or final), it's obvious who's getting covered.

Who else?
Supporters of candidates are often family and friends of the candidate. They may support a candidate on a semi-tribal level although they may not agree with any of the planks of a particular platform. If this is a commonly known situation, try to find some visual manifestation during the campaign or election party.

Likewise, campaign backers often gain lucrative contracts when a particular candidate wins. If possible, know who key financial backers are before the election party. Otherwise, remember to ask for affiliations in addition to names while collecting cutline information.

Some directed questions might include:
What city are you from?
How have you supported this candidate?
What organization do you represent?
Why are you supporting this candidate?

These questions can foretell what readers might expect from a candidate. If all attendees at an election party are fish enthusiasts, readers could expect some "fishy" ordinances, laws or contracts if the candidate wins. ;-}

Most daily morning newspapers run key elections either on the front page or on the Metro page. These pages typically get put to bed for the first edition before 10 p.m. The last edition (box/home) goes to bed around midnight.

These deadlines are absolute. Although the election tabulations may last until the next morning or (as in Bush v. Gore) many weeks, images must be prepared and ready for all three editions.

Unfortunately, most polling places don't close until 7 p.m.

Consequently, PJs can only expect to have about an hour or 90 minutes to capture the required shots before it's time to either transmit or return to the newsroom.

What to shoot
Since we understand the deadline often occurs before most votes are counted, we must shoot for any outcome. Typically, PJs focus on the candidate during an election party and try to get images to show a win, a loss and a neutral.

A win shot is a happy shot. A loss shot involves a reflective moment or outright emotional reaction. The neutral shot is the deadline shot. The neutral shot is used typically in the first edition newspaper when no candidate clearly leads. The neutral shot often includes the candidate with primary campaign backers or celebrities. However, try to get these people when they show no discernible expressions - it's merely a conversation with recognizable people.

Throughout the shoot, PJs look for breaks in the candidate composure. Politicians frequently control their emotions and wear a smile at all times (look at recent indictment images). Because politicians are aware every move is being intently watched during the election party, they're even less likely to show anything other than a winning personality.

However, elections are stressful and problems are common. Frustration with machines, reporting delays and other problems can make a candidate momentarily lose composure. It's typically only a split second, but it's the story-telling image if it happens before deadline.

Enough for now,

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