Covering politics in Michigan has changed dramatically in recent years, according to three of Michigan’s top political reporters who took part in a wide-ranging and revealing roundtable discussion that SPJ Detroit hosted.
The reporters talked about the pressures and accusations they face daily from both readers and the candidates they cover – and agreed the level of vitriol aimed at them today is more intense than it was even two years ago.
During this year’s political campaign season some of Michigan’s leading political candidates have been attacking reporters directly on social media, dodging interviews and ignoring invitations from the state’s largest newspapers to participate in editorial board endorsement interviews.
This fundamental change in how political candidates interact with the press has led political reporters to, at times, push back directly against accusations on social media and to find new and different ways to cover political campaigns.
In Michigan – as the SPJ Detroit panel discussion made clear – we are blessed to have a strong, core group of experienced and driven political reporters who are thoughtfully navigating the changing political environment and remain committed to doing their jobs the right way.
MEET THE PANELISTS
Craig Mauger, state government and politics in Michigan reporter for The Detroit News (also among the state’s leading political reporters), has frequently been attacked by political candidates on Twitter.
“There are times when some people attack me and it is so obviously wrong that I feel the need to correct the record,” Mauger said. “I don’t seek out battles with people…but we have to stand up for truth. This idea that we can let people attack us and attack our credibility endlessly – I think that is wrong.”
For a long time, Emily Lawler, state politics and government editor for the Detroit Free Press, said she was reluctant to respond to attacks on her reporting on social media.
But her viewpoint has changed.
“Who else is going to stand up for the press?” she asked. “Who else is going to stand up for our work other than us?”
Before she responds, Lawler evaluates how influential they are. If they only have a few followers and responding is going to elevate their voice, she is less likely to engage.
More broadly, Mauger said the reporting environment for political journalists is noticeably more hostile now than it was leading up to the 2020 presidential election. He believes the proliferation of smaller, ideological political platforms has given candidates the option of insulating themselves from mainstream media who are trained to ask all sides tough questions. And then when they do get tough questions, they accuse the media of being biased.
“You know, I am asking you a tough question, hey but I am also asking people on the other side a tough question – and you might not be seeing it, but I am asking it,” Mauger said.
Candidates for top offices including Matt DePerno, the Republican candidate for Michigan Attorney General, and Kristina Karamo, the Republican candidate for Secretary of State, have declined extended interviews in recent months, shutting off access, Mauger said. To get around that, Mauger started typing candidates’ names into YouTube, Rumble and his Apple podcast app.
“I just typed Matt DePerno’s name into my iPhone Apple podcast app one time and I found he had done like 40 podcasts over the past 16 months,” Mauger said. “So, it has been a really effective tool to report on people who don’t give me lengthy interviews.”
Another big change – elections in America are no longer over when they are over.
Rick Pluta, senior capitol correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network, predicted reporters will be covering the fallout from Michigan’s mid-term election, “well into December. And people who are campaign reporters right now are going to be court reporters after November.”
Mauger took it a step further: “I’m 100% confident we will be talking about the 2020 election easily up until the 2024 election. I don’t see any way in the next presidential election we are not talking about this.”
Despite these challenges, Lawler, Mauger and Pluta say their mission has not changed.
“My job is to explain the world – not to pass judgement on the world,” Pluta said.
Lawler agreed – and said the need for the media to spend more time explaining both the political process and the process media uses to write about politics is more important than ever.
On Oct. 2, the Detroit Free Press ran a story titled Elections are complicated. Here’s how we cover them at the Free Press.
“There is this perception that the media is being pulled in different directions by the campaigns or people with influence,” Lawler said. “I wanted people to know they have just as much influence as the campaign calling us up sometimes.”