What to do before your newspaper interviews political candidates

Jim Pumerlo
Jim Pumerlo

Preparation is a requisite for all solid news stories. This principle is doubly important when interviewing candidates seeking elective office.

For the majority of readers, your stories will be their primary exposure to these individuals and will be the basis for their votes at the ballot box. That’s especially the case for candidates vying for a spot on local government bodies. The decisions of policy-makers at all levels affect numerous aspects of your readers’ everyday lives from taxation to zoning to classroom sizes.

Introducing candidates is among the most important elements of the months-long election coverage. It’s a two-part process. First, frame the questions. Second, be ready for cross-examination of the candidates. In both cases, I encourage broadening your preparation.

It’s a natural beginning point for newsrooms to huddle and brainstorm questions. After all, an education reporter should be well versed to frame the issues to pose to school board candidates. In addition, review ongoing coverage of governing bodies in your own newspaper as well as other appropriate publications. Examine the conversation on social media channels.

Be careful, however, to not view your newsroom as the “brain trust” for identifying what’s on the minds of your readers. In that regard:

Involve your entire newspaper family who likely represents an excellent cross-section of your readers. Each department also has interactions with different sectors of your community. Ad salespeople, the publisher and general manager, circulation personnel – their perspectives can be equally important.

Consult your kitchen cabinet. Many editors have an informal list of advisers. These individuals have their networks as well and are an excellent resource for finding out what’s on the collective mind of your community.

Identify specific questions for candidates. For example, in a school board race, maybe one candidate is running on a singular platform of advocating for full-day kindergarten.

Don’t forget your readers. Invite them to pinpoint priority issues in races. It’s an excellent topic for a column.

Identifying the questions is the first task. The next task facing reporters is understanding the range of issues and having the ability to press candidates for additional detail. This becomes a greater challenge in such races as legislative and congressional contests where candidates are usually prepped for interviews.

Reporters must be prepared to flesh out answers in the candidates’ own words, minus the cheat sheet they’ll often have. Don’t accept simple yes/no answers, and don’t be afraid to ask them to elaborate if answers are incomplete or unsatisfactory. By all means, make it clear that candidates will be interviewed alone – minus their handlers.

Incumbents often have an advantage in interviews, especially if they have served for any length of time. It can be challenging; consider a rookie reporter squaring off with a 12-year state lawmaker. In that scenario, it might be worthwhile for two people to quiz a candidate. The editor, or maybe even a general manager or publisher, should sit in on those races identified as being especially important to your readership. The question-answer session could simultaneously serve as the endorsement interview.

Once you’ve scoured the community landscape for candidate questions, blend everyone’s ideas with your list. In the end, your newsroom will decide the final lineup of questions. Most important, your initiative to engage your readers in the conversation is a win-win for your newspaper and your community.

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of several books, including his most recent, “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage for Beginning and Veteran Journalists.” He can be reached at