Group discussions with Ron Elving, left, and two Romanian journalists.

U.S. and Romanian Experts Discuss Negative Campaigns During Discussion of Elections in Two Countries

American election coverage is locked in a cycle of negativity, a group of American journalists and political campaign experts observed during a week of discussions with their counterparts in Romania in late May.

The Romanians said they recognized the problem, as their elections campaigns are often negative, involving charges and countercharges between the candidates played out in the media coverage.

The journalists and campaign experts did not see a way out of the cycle of negative coverage, though they doubted the public was well served in the process.

The Romanians were in the middle of the campaign leading up to the June 6 election of mayors and local council members. In November Romanians will elect members of the national parliament and the country's president. The American presidential campaign, leading up to the November election, was in full swing.

"We cover conflict better than we cover agreement," said Ron Elving, senior Washington editor for National Public Radio, a noncommercial radio programming service in the U.S. "A good deal of what we do is driven by what we think it a good story. It is our professional assessment of what we think the public wants."

"We Romanians are southern and very hot-blooded," a Romanian journalist said. "We are very interested in conflicts between candidates."

The exchange between the American and Romanian journalists and political campaign specialists took place in a two-day workshop in Sinaia in the central part of Romania. The workshop was organized by the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia at the invitation of the Agency for Governmental Strategies, a unit of the central government of Romania. Twenty-one journalists and government communication specialists from Romania participated in the discussions.

The Sinaia workshop was followed by a similar two-day program in Cluj-Napoca in northeast Romania, where 45 journalists and other communication specialists participated in the discussion.

Jeannie Layson, who has served as communications director for a number of political candidates in the U.S., said many campaigns now hire "opposition researchers" whose job it is to find negative information about the opponent that can be used in the campaign.

"It is very real and very negative," Layson said of the activity. "It is unfortunate. The debate about ideas does not rise to the surface."

"This is absolutely a vicious circle," said Mike Cavender, who has spent much of his career directing local news coverage in television stations in the U.S. "Do we as journalists have a responsibility to explain issues of interest to the public? We absolutely do."

"But we cannot seem to get past negative campaigning. In no sense do I think it is the media's fault that campaigns are negative."

"We don't get through unless we go negative," Layson said in explaining the negative approach of the candidates. "We don't cut through the noise with a positive, thoughtful message."

Elving, Layson and Cavender were part of a six-person U.S. team assembled by the Cox Center for the Romanian exchange. Other team members were Lea Donosky, Elections 2004 editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rob Daves, director of strategic and news research at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and Dr. C. Ann Hollifield, associate professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

Dr. Hollifield, who worked as a print and broadcast journalist before assuming her position in the Department of Telecommunications in the Grady College at the University of Georgia, served as moderator of the discussions in Sinaia on May 24 and 25 and in Cluj-Napoca on May 27 and 28.

The Cox Center is a unit of the Grady College at the University of Georgia.

Dan Jurcan, director general of the Romanian Agency for Governmental Strategies said at the opening of the session in Sinaia that the Agency selected the topic of the workshop, Mass Media and Elections, because "the election is the essence of democracy."

"In many ways, this is the most basic, most fundamental, most profound of topics," Cox Center Director Dr. Lee B. Becker said in his opening comments for both venues. "If the central element of democracy is choice, then giving people the information to make good choices is a very noble activity."

Dr. Becker said the responsibility for providing information to the electorate is shared by the candidates and their spokespersons and by the journalists.

Dr. Hollified asked journalists and government communication specialists at the beginning of both sessions to first think about the "ideal that lies behind" coverage of the campaign and then to comment on the reality.

"The ideal would be that we would motivate the electorate to go to the polls," Donosky said in Sinaia.

"We want to tell readers about the candidates so they can make their decisions when they go to the polls," Daves added.

"The most important thing is to be an independent media, economically and politically," a Romanian journalist chimed in. "This type of press can stay unbiased. The role of the press is an informative role. They should point to the truth."

"The main job of the media is to inform the public," one of the Romanian journalists in Cluj-Napoca said simply.

In both Sinaia and Cluj-Napoca, Daves, an expert on polling, explained how his newspaper and others in the United States conduct and use polls as part of their campaign coverage. In Cluj-Napoca, particularly, the topic generated quite a lot of discussion among the Romanians present.

"I don't think journalistic organizations in Romania can afford polls," said Doru Sava, a journalist from Arad. "We receive polls from the candidates. We just take the polls and publish them as such."

Mariana Cernicova, a journalist from Timisoara, said her newspaper has conducted polls in the past but "it was too resource consuming to repeat the process."

Daves suggested that journalistic organizations could band together to share the costs of polls, could work with universities in their communities, and could arrange with a local research firm to add questions to ongoing polls as a way of holding down costs.

Daves and Donosky, whose paper also uses polls as part of its election coverage, said polls can be very helpful in helping journalists understand what issues are important to the electorate.

"A political story is not just politicians talking to each other," Donosky said. "If we do a good job and a creative job, we pick out issues that matter to the voters and write about them in an interesting way."

The Agency for Governmental Strategies and the Cox Center had agreed on a list of topics to be covered in the workshops that included ownership pressures on campaign coverage, covering campaign financing, creating election guides and assessing and writing about campaign advertisements.

The goal was to create a dialog among the U.S. and Romanian communication professionals. "The Cox Center seeks to create bridges," Center Assistant Director Dr. Tudor Vlad told the group in opening comments at the Sinaia workshop.

The Cox Center conducted workshops in May of 2002 and May of 2003 in Romania using the same format. In those two years and again in 2004, the invitation to the Cox Center was made by Dr. Vasile Dincu, now president of the Agency for Governmental Strategies.

The Agency for Governmental Strategies is organized as a special institution of the central government of Romania and works in coordination with the prime minister. It is financed through the budget of the central government.

At the conclusion of the workshop in Cluj Napoca, Drs. Becker and Vlad and Ms. Mihaela Orban, director of the Department of Research and Social Diagnosis in the Agency for Governmental Strategies, held a press conference, attended by approximately 20 journalists, to answer questions about the workshop discussions. Dr. Becker said the workshops indicated there were "more similarities than dissimilarities" in the ways political campaigns are covered in the two countries.

Dr. Vlad and Dr. Becker also were the guests later in the day in a half-hour program, Special Edition, produced by Romanian Television in Cluj Napoca, dealing with the workshop discussions. The program was hosted by Mircea Tatar, who attended the workshop.

On May 31 Drs. Becker and Vlad met with Dr. Dincu to review the outcome of the collaboration between the Agency and the Cox Center and discuss the possibility of future activities.

Later that day Dr. Becker met with Mark Wentworth, Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, to share ideas about the educational and training needs of and opportunities for journalists in Romania.