August 29th, 2006 08:23 EST
I Pledge Allegiance to Conduct Background Checks on All Political Candidates
Journalists not only have a responsibility to help voters understand candidates and what they stand for, but also a duty to investigate people running for public office, journalist Jerry Hagstrom said August 25 in a Democracy Dialogues webchat.
In the United States, the media act as an intermediary between the voters and the candidates, Hagstrom said. Voters can attend campaign events and ask questions but the media can report more broadly on what groups of voters are asking the candidates and how the candidates respond.
"The overall impression of the candidate is the most important thing for a voter in making a decision about who to vote for," said Hagstrom, so the job of the journalist is to evaluate all aspects of a candidate's record.
Print, electronic and Internet media each play different roles in political campaigns. While print journalists can write lengthy investigative pieces, Hagstrom said, television and radio reach more people. On election night in the United States, most people look to the major television networks for detailed coverage on election races.
And though the Internet plays an important role in American politics, it is not as effective as radio or television in changing people's minds on support for a candidate, Hagstrom said. "The Internet is good at conveying detailed information but not as good as radio or TV at conveying overall impressions. People vote on overall impressions of candidates and parties, not details," he said. The Internet also has helped campaigns better organize and raise money, Hagstrom said.
In U.S. presidential races, many major news organizations assign journalists to travel with a candidate. This allows the journalist to gain detailed knowledge of the candidate and - if the candidate wins - the reporter likely will be assigned to cover the winner at the White House, Hagstrom said.
When covering the winner, a journalist still has the responsibility to help citizens understand the new leader and investigate any problems. "It is important for journalists to hold the officeholders accountable once they are in office," Hagstrom said. "The officeholder might forget what he or she has promised and the voters may forget too ... but the journalists can keep records and raise issues of what was promised and what was delivered when the candidate is up for re-election."
Jerry Hagstrom has been a contributing editor for the National Journal, a weekly Washington magazine on government and national politics, since 1976. He also writes for National Journal's sister publications, Congress Daily and Government Executive. A transcript of his webchat is available at USINFO's Webchat Station.
Democracy Dialogues is a global conversation addressing democratic governance through interactive public forums, readings, videos, photos and historic documents, with a new topic introduced every two months.
By: Michelle Austein
Source: U.S. Department of State