Here's an excerpt from Arnie Sawislak's 24-page 1976 Election Handbook, which includes this preface from Sawislak:
We do no more important work than reporting news of government and politics.
This handbook is about political coverage, from the first stages of campaign organization to the cleanup after the last election votes are counted. It touches on general principles of political reporting and writing, but mainly it is a working manual for wire service campaign and election reporters.
It is not a rulebook.
Differing laws, traditions and news needs across the country call for different methods of covering campaigns and elections. There is no "system" that fits all situations and solves all problems.
The hope is that this will become a real workbook, to be revised and expanded as needed. All who read it are invited to offer suggestions, observations and corrections for subsequent editions.
If a dedication is proper, it is to the UPI people who, from the days of the Morse key to the VDT, have worked without rest on election days, nights and days after to tell Americans what they have done with their votes.
They made this book.
The undersigned only put it together -- Arnie Sawislak
The essentials of good political reporting and writing are the same as for other kind of wire service news. Accuracy, objectivity, clarity, speed and brevity are the minimum requirements. There is an extra element of importance in political news coverage, however. In this field, and in reporting the activities of government, we have a unique responsibility.
It was to guarantee Americans an independent and critical view of government that the press was given the immense privileges of the First Amendment. However ponderous or even pompous it may seem to say so, we are the inheritors of a trust shared by no one else in society.
The First Law is accuracy, and in political news reporting it is vital. Professional standards and libel aside, errors in political reporting can damage more than politicians and political parties. They can do violence to self government.
Citizens make decisions on the basis of political news stories. They have the right to expect they are getting facts that will stand up. They have the right to expect we have done everything possible to check and recheck before writing anything.
Rumor and hearsay have no place in wire service political reporting. The use of unidentified sources sometimes is necessary when important news can reported no other way. But they should be used sparingly. It is the reporter's responsibility to know that the source is both knowledgeable and reliable.
Objectivity meshes with accuracy. Some may regard objectivity as euphemism for copping out, abdicating personal principle in the name of "balanced" news presentation. This can be argued with passion on both sides, which is just the point about the need for objectivity.
Disagreement is fundamental to the political process. There may be some settled questions in American politics, but it is extremely risky to assume the absence of responsible opposition to any political proposition. The early coverage of the antiwar movement in the 1960s is an example of this danger.
Objectivity does not require us to accept the statements of politicians, however eminent, as fact. The real cop-out is to report a political claim or charge and then sit back and wait for a response. We must seek replies and make them, if possible, part of the same story that reports the original statement.
The inability to obtain replies to political claims does not meet we must swallow lies. It is sometimes necessary, using facts that can be supported, to provide on our own initiative the explanation of what has been said or done in politics. But this is even more sensitive than the blind quote; a course to follow only when the best method is not available. This is a case where accuracy serves objectivity, but it must be applied with precision.
Accuracy and objectivity affect the need for speed in political reporting, but do not eliminate it. We know that newspaper editors often will wait for their own reporter to return with a story they want and will ask questions or order a rewriting if it does not suit them.
We also know that if a wire service delivers a story after its opposition, it probably will not be used. And if an editor cannot understand a wire story or it runs on without good reason, it almost certainly will go into the trash. Be fast. But first be sure.
There are some special problems of clarity in political writing. In writing sports for Americans, it is not necessary to explain a touchdown or home run. Planes crashes, floods and mass murders can be reported in terms, generally understood by readers and listeners. In political writing, such phrases as "brokered convention" or "party slatemakers" need explanation. It can be done briefly and without interfering with the main job of telling the news.
Jargon and inside references can give color and authenticity to political writing, but unless you translate for your reader or listener, you are just showing off. The issue is true of historical allusions. There probably are people in Louisiana who think Huey Long is a stretch helicopter and in New York who would identify Tammany Hall as a brand of pipe tobacco.
As in any other writing, cliches can be a curse. One UPI lead said a candidate was about to "formally" plunge into the scramble for the Democratic presidential nomination. It sounded like Brer Rabbit in high hat and tails.
There is another problem that few newspaper writer shave but all wire service political reporters must deal with. It is the necessity to explain a political issue in New Jersey to a reader in Iowa. Some questions, such as property taxes or capital punishment, are common to all parts of the country. But campaigns sometimes involve issues peculiar to the area involved, such as fare increases on the Jersey tubes or water hyacinth control in Florida. If the issue is important to the story, we must include background to explain it to the reader hundreds of miles away.
Be sure you know what words mean, too. For example, "refute" means to disprove. It does not mean reply or deny or rebut. "Imply" means to suggest indirectly; "infer" means to conclude. This information comes from a dictionary.
Quotes can be the salvation or ruin of a political story. Use full quotes whenever possible, especially if you have extracted partial quotes for the lead. The use of a punchy or colorful partial quote can make a story, but it also can distort meaning. Politicians and readers have the right to expect quotes in context.
Remember when someone says "Yes" to a question, that does not entitle you to put the words used in the question into the person's mouth. Cumbersome as it may be, we can only report the question and the answer.
In 1970, Roger Tatarian wrote:
"For millions of people in this country and additional millions overseas, we are the only source of information of events outside their immediate localities. So our job now, as ever, is to be a faithful stand-in for those who cannot witness these distant events for themselves.
"The test of our work is whether our reportage enables them to reach the same general impression that the event itself would have given them. To act as the extension of other individuals with different attitudes and different politics is difficult in the best of times. In times like these, it may well be an impossibility. But that does not relieve us of the responsibility of trying to achieve it; indeed, it makes doubly imperative that we try."