By Dennis Hetzel
Ohio Newspaper Association
Memo from Ohio news media to the public: Message received. You deserve better, more meaningful coverage of presidential elections. That’s a particularly urgent challenge for Ohio’s media outlets since the Buckeye State will again occupy the main stage in 2016.
With that in mind, representatives of more than 30 Ohio media outlets and organizations met Dec. 16 in Columbus and shared concerns that too much political coverage has devolved into reporting on the campaigns while the interests of citizens disappear in the discussion.
That problem is acute in Ohio, a key swing state where campaigns often spend more money than in any other state. The public gets pummeled by advertising, telephone calls, e-blasts, mailings, staged events and too much shallow reporting. Negative advertising — often filled with half-truths at best — bombards the airwaves, discouraging and annoying citizens.
Scant time remains to present the voices of Ohioans or push candidates to address relevant issues in meaningful detail.
If citizens turn to news media for informed coverage, they see journalists facing more challenges than ever, including diminished resources to deliver the kind of coverage that speaks to Ohio’s 11 million people across several distinctly different regions.
So, the question we addressed at our meeting was this: Can Ohio’s news media collaborate intelligently to provide better coverage so that people have a sense that they’re being heard?
Citizens direct anger and frustration at all involved – the politicians, their consultants and the media. They feel marginalized, ignored, stereotyped and treated like they’re stupid. That was clear during a remarkable October retreat hosted by the National Institute for Civil Discourse that involved elected officials, journalists and citizens. NICD has identified Ohio as particularly fertile territory for changing the way people talk about tough issues during divisive political campaigns.
The meeting grew out of a civility project in Akron in 2012 that explored the reasons citizens are so angered and frustrated – particularly in Ohio during national election cycles. In that project, the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Jefferson Center and the Akron faith community used polling, focus groups and forums to isolate the causes, much of which pointed back to media, negative advertising and politicians.
That led to the Columbus meeting. Here is a list of what the group hopes to accomplish:
• Polling on the issues instead of the horse race that asks Ohioans to help set the agenda for coverage
• Sharing interviews of people across the state and collaborating on stories that bring the issues most important to Ohio citizens to life.
• Collaborating with national media on projects exploring negative advertising, how and where it is created and how it affects Ohioans.
• Coordinated engagement projects with young people that encourage them to think about and express themselves on major issues.
• Providing news organizations with excellent background so reporters can ask better, tougher, more insightful questions to the candidates as they parachute into Ohio for campaign stops that otherwise would provide nearly meaningless sound bites.
There is much work to be done, but the goal is clear: By working together and working smarter, Ohio’s media outlets can do a much better job of helping Ohio citizens decide who will be the next president of the United States.
Newspaper participants at the Dec. 16 meeting coordinated by the Ohio Newspaper Association and who expressed interest in the collaborative were The Dispatch; Akron Beacon Journal; Cincinnati Enquirer; The Blade of Toledo; Dayton Daily News; The Repository of Canton and Gatehouse Media; Gannett’s Media Network of Central Ohio representing several dailies; Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky; The Lima News; The Daily Times & Community Common of Portsmouth; The Courier of Jefferson; Ohio Valley Publishing of Gallipolis; The Courier of Findlay; and The Clyde Enterprise.
Broadcast participants included the Ohio Association of Broadcasters, WCMH (Columbus), WFIN/WKXA/WBUK Findlay, Rubber City Radio, ABC6/Fox 28, Columbus; North American Broadcasting, Columbus; WOSU public media; and WBNS 10TV, Columbus.
The Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication also was represented.
Dennis Hetzel is executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached at [email protected] Doug Oplinger, managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, provided considerable assistance to this article.