Commentary

Oregon voters want more help from the press to learn about candidates for governor

In listening sessions, Oregonians say they don’t want journalists picking winners through coverage

April 1, 2022 5:30 am
Official ballot site election

Voters will weigh in on issues including whether to change Oregon’s boundary with Idaho, whether to repeal tobacco regulations and how much money neighborhood schools should receive. (Malheur Enterprise)

SALEM ­– Oregon’s press has a tremendous opportunity now to perform a public service, earn trust, and build new ways to provide vital information.

The governor’s race this year could use such an approach.

Democrats will have 15 candidates to choose from on May 17. Most of the reporting so far is focused on Tina Kotek, the former Oregon House speaker, and Tobias Read, the state treasurer.

Republicans will have 19 candidates on their ballot and no one has a runaway lead.

Voters in Oregon want the press to help them know more about the people who want to succeed Gov. Kate Brown.

In recent listening sessions, voters from around the state shared their thoughts about the run for governor and how the press should report on the campaigns. This was part of a unique effort done in collaboration between the Oregon Capital Chronicle, Rural Development Initiatives and the Agora Journalism Center. News organizations in the state were partners as well, promoting the sessions.

On Friday, some Oregon journalists will consider how to address what voters are saying.

I have little interest in scandals and digging up dirt.

– Charlie Mitchell, Oregon voter

Granted, these voters were a small slice of the state’s voter pool. Yet they all offered thoughtful observations. They shared advice for news organizations such as the Capital Chronicle.

Themes emerged.

An important one is they don’t want reporters and editors anointing a few candidates as leaders, likely to win, and dooming the remaining candidates to obscurity.

Don’t pick winners, these voters say. Tell us about all the candidates and let us decide who warrants serious attention.

One voter made the point that a candidate’s ability to raise a lot of money shouldn’t be what settles who’s a serious candidate and who’s not.

Another theme was they want some way to compare where candidates stand on issues important to Oregon. This came up over and over again in these conversations. They wondered if there was some way to provide a side-by-side comparison.

“Seeing comparative profiles (for example, ‘these candidates have the following views on homelessness’ or ‘these candidates have the following ideas for modifying Oregon’s land use policies’) would be helpful in guiding me through the process of voting based on my own vision for Oregon rather than party affiliation,” wrote Claire Conklin.

That caught my attention and I’ll return to this idea in a moment.

In the vein of useful information, some voters said they aren’t interested in political scandal.

“I have little interest in scandals and digging up dirt on candidates. Leave that to the paid advertisements and try to keep it out of investigative journalism unless it is truly relevant,” said Charlie Mitchell.

The voters sent mixed signals about reporting on campaign contributions. In an instant survey, nearly all said they wanted such news. But when we explored the topic, what they asked for is not what the press generally delivers.

My take-away was that these voters want more useful reporting on campaign money. Just a list of who got what big checks is trivia to some. Rather, they want to know ‘what does this money mean?’ What does Phil Knight of Nike want for his six-figure contribution? What does the flow of campaign money tell voters about who’s trying to control candidates – or Oregon?

This all comes at a challenging time for the news media. Newsrooms have fewer reporters. That means covering a sprawling gubernatorial campaign is beyond the reach of any but the largest outfits such as The Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting or Pamplin Media, to cite a few examples.

On Friday, editors from newsrooms large and small will convene to discuss this challenge. Andrew DeVigal and Regina Lawrence of the Agora Journalism Center are orchestrating what could be a terrific meeting for the press – and for Oregonians.

Journalists from those large outfits I named earlier will participate. So will journalists from newsrooms all over Oregon, including by way of example Jefferson Public Radio in southern Oregon, Street Roots, Willamette Week and KGW in Portland, the Polk County Itemizer-Observer and the Wallowa County Chieftain in rural Oregon.

DeVigal and Lawrence will lead a discussion about whether newsrooms that typically compete can come together again for common purpose. Oregon news outfits have done this before, notably on a potent project looking at suicides.

If there is an appetite to work together again, the discussion will examine how we can deliver information for the primary election that readers would judge to be accurate, fair and trustworthy. My hope is we can find a way to deliver something like those side-by-side issue comparisons. Seeing in one place, in clear language, what the top action each candidate would take on, say, homelessness could be a powerful tool for voters.

“This side-by-side issue coverage would allow media to convert it to a more social media style to get more engagement for those non-voters,” said Ginger Savage.

The voters I listened to are eager for all of us in the Oregon press to help them. They have provided useful guidance. Now, it’s time for the journalists in Oregon to listen to those community voices and deliver.

Related commentaries:

For those outside Oregon’s urban areas, the urban-rural issue is an opportunity for next governor

Oregonians don’t want a party hack in the governor’s office

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Les Zaitz
Les Zaitz

Les Zaitz is a veteran editor and investigative reporter, serving Oregon for more than 45 years. He reported for The Oregonian for 25 years and owns community newspapers and a digital news service. He is a national SPJ fellow, two-time Pulitzer finalist, including for a lengthy investigation of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon and five-time winner of Oregon’s top investigative reporting award. He has investigated corrupt state legislators, phony charities, and an international cult that moved to Oregon, and the biggest bank failure in Oregon history. He also has been active in reforming the state’s public records law and was appointed by the governor to the Oregon Public Records Advisory Council. In his spare time, he operates a ranch nestled in a national forest, feeding horses and assorted animals.

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