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Politics: To wonk or not to wonk?

03/02/2014 5:00 PM

03/02/2014 6:41 PM

How’s this for understatement? Our government proposes, debates and passes legislation that’s made up of a lot of words.

We know the political operative’s favorite gotcha trick: Asking politicians whether they have read every word of a bill they just voted for or against. Often, if they’re being truthful, they reply that they didn’t read word for word, but instead relied on their support staff.

Poring over and deciphering the actual meaning behind documents such as the tax code or the Affordable Care Act is an important responsibility of journalists. Readers who follow politics often contact me when they want more detail than they see in The Kansas City Star.

One such example came last week when The Star ran a story on Page A1 about

a bill under consideration in Kansas that would remove breaks on property taxes for certain nonprofits, possibly including the YMCA

.

“Why is there not a link to the actual bill(s) that are being debated?” asked one emailer, who noted he saw a similar story elsewhere that specified the bill numbers. Would supplying the bill number perhaps prompt readers to do a bit of leg work to read up more fully and thus become more informed?

That’s certainly a fair question. I asked Greg Farmer, who oversees The Star’s Metro desk and its politics coverage, if there is a set policy about whether to include details such as bill numbers. His reply, in part:

“We don’t include bill numbers routinely because they serve only to add wonk to topics that are by their nature sometimes thick and hard to understand. Why add additional and unnecessary bureaucratic detail that ‘no one’ is going to use? I say ‘no one’ to mean that those who will use that information are so deeply interested in the topic or entrenched in the process that they don’t need us to tell them the number.”

That reasoning is backed up by my experience with readers, too. I’ve found that those contacting me about The Star’s political coverage are generally (and admirably) immersed in the minutiae of the legislation they’re concerned with. Almost universally, they’re operating with a strong point of view about the law they’re following — and there is nothing wrong with that.

But it’s true these people don’t usually need anyone to tell them the bill numbers, which are easily accessible in the Internet age. There have long been postal mailing lists and phone trees to get the word out, but they pale in comparison to the light-speed availability of reams of information on our computers and smartphones today.

Seen through that lens, the job of the journalist is to understand the broader issues at play, separate the wheat from the chaff, and explain to the general audience what’s really at stake.

Reporters with experience around lawmakers, and the commensurate perspective that affords, should also help to knock down the background noise. The Internet has unquestionably allowed some attention-seeking pols to raise their personal profiles by putting forth provocative and controversial “proposals” that stand no realistic chance of making their way out of committee, much less being enacted into law.

Journalists should weigh an idea’s political viability and import before giving it big play, regardless of whether the notion has gained traction in the popular imagination.

It’s a big and tricky job, and readers always tell me when they think something has gone off the tracks.

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