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The inside scoop on the scoopers

Legislators, don’t hate us because we’re critical

By Leigh E. Rich

Word to the wise: If you’re not a public official, the middle aisle in the House and Senate chambers is politics’ version of the third rail.

I’m not sure what happens when a regular Joe off the street or, if they dare, any one of the reporters on the Capitol beat ventures across the imaginary line roping off the hallowed chamber floors.

And I don’t intend to find out.

But I’m certain sparks would fly.

At least that’s what veterans associated with Colorado’s Statehouse intimate when sharing a bit of advice with a newbie like me.

I don’t mind being the new kid on the block, having to fight for a good vantage point—or a spot at the coveted press tables—from which to get a story. After all, there are 20 freshman legislators who know about as much as me. (I eavesdropped these past two months on their freshman orientation sessions, just as I will sit in on their floor sessions, committee meetings and press conferences in the days to come.)

And there’s a new majority in town, with the Dems gleefully taking control of both houses for the first time in 44 years.

So, perhaps we’ll all stumble together. There’s safety from slip-ups in numbers, you know.

And there’s plenty of advice. With brand new leaders and a brand new session, tips of the trade aren’t hard to find. Guest columns from legislators past and present have abounded in this paper and others in the past few weeks, and lectures and handouts have offered counsel in the calm before the 65th storm.

Sure, as a reporter it helps to know what lawmakers are up against while juggling constituents’ interests or maneuvering bills through the obstacle course that is the Legislature. But what should legislators know about us, the pack of reporters chasing them down with nothing more than pens and cameras and recorders for the hunt?

Probably not much, other than we tend to be a motley looking lot. In any case, add this to your pile of “Things You Wish You Knew” and do take note of the source:

• The pen just might be mightier than the sword, but don’t worry, we’re not always out for the kill … as long as you don’t offer something savorous to go after.

• We will ask you some stupid questions. It’s an occupational hazard. Unfortunately for us, it’ll often happen in packed, public press conferences where a significant portion of the attendees are equipped with recording devices that can preserve our folly for posterity. For your sake, don’t give us stupid answers.

• There is a distinguishing characteristic between a journalist and a car salesman: We’re not likely to help you get from here to there.

But on a good note, every news outlet has some sort of ethics policy that’s longer than you might think. Like a good lawmaker or lobbyist, the successful reporter is guided by honesty and integrity. We must always elevate truth and accuracy above our own gain. We’re not allowed to accept gifts, give gifts, contribute to campaigns, associate with partisan organizations, or generally do anything that might compromise the integrity of our profession or our employers.

In fact, as political reporters, it’s amazing we’re even allowed to vote.

Ethical and honest? Sure, this might not sound like the media you know. But for fun—and to stick it to us when we do push the lines—check out the draft of the Associated Press’ ethics policy at Bet our policy is even longer than yours.

• As a legislator, it’s “not a sin to socialize with the lobby,” what some have deemed the “fourth branch of government.” And it’s the job of a lobbyist to build social relationships with lawmakers.

In the press, however, our hands are tied and rightly so. We can’t accept theater tickets if we’re not writing a review and we shouldn’t take you to dinner, for fear of looking like we’re paying for information. That’s good news for you, because on our salaries, we’d likely stick you with the bill.

Unlike the lobby, we have little to offer you. Just think of us as the bacteria in your colon: You can’t survive without us, but you really don’t want us going where we shouldn’t.

• Though it has been said that “the press runs in packs,” it isn’t quite true. Since we really can’t socialize with legislators or the lobby, all we’re left with is each other. So it might seem we stick together like a school of sardines, but in actuality we’re solitary sharks roaming the legislative ocean in direct competition for the first catch of the day.

• Forget what your marketing professor told you—there is such a thing as bad publicity. You might beg for our attention on the stump, but you’ll likely balk at our persistent questions after roll call.

To avoid bad press, be honest with us. Hold us to the level of accountability that we will hold you. And review the advice on stupid questions-stupid answers mentioned above.

• Throw us plenty of parties, aka, press conferences. They are your chance to feed us information. Just remember that we’re likely to digest what you give us, spit the sour parts out, and come back asking for the recipe.

• Temporally, you have the upper hand. You work best during the 7 a.m. breakfast rush, we work best sometime after the sun goes down. If we wanted to rise early every day and be required to wear a tie, we’d have gone corporate. Or joined the Legislature.

So if you see us yawning or staring glassy-eyed, it might not be the content of your bill. Or at least it’s a possibility.

• And whether we’re lambs on the cutting block or veteran journalists with ailing livers, don’t hesitate to report back to us. Gov. Owens always takes the time to put me in my place, and we reporters have special files or entire walls dedicated just for your floggings and feedback.

Drop a line when a correction is needed or write a letter or an editorial. Be our watchdog as much as we are yours. Oh, and an “at-a-boy” now and then wouldn’t hurt as well.

Sometimes, as my dad always reminds me, it’s hard to believe we political reporters get paid (however paltry the wage) to do what we do.

We’d likely do it without compensation, though that bit of information is off the record. 

Rich, L. E. (2005, January 14). The inside scoop on the scoopers: Legislators, don’t hate us because we’re critical. The Colorado Statesman, p. 2.

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