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UW Election Eye

Newt Gingrich addresses the media inside the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas during the Nevada Republican caucus on Feb. 4. Photo by Ilona Idlis

The New Scoop on Political Journalism
An innovative program puts UW students at the forefront of newsgathering

THE UW ELECTION EYE team had a hunch Colorado could be big for Rick Santorum.

The former Pennsylvania senator was gaining momentum in his quest to become the Republican Party nominee for president, and for 72 hours before the GOP primary, an intrepid crew of six students and two faculty from the UW Department of Communication fanned out across the Centennial State. They interviewed religious leaders in Colorado Springs, sat down with U.S. Army personnel at Fort Carson, and enjoyed brownies served up by Santorum’s children at a Denver rally.

The final evening, during Colorado’s Republican caucus, the team gathered at election headquarters. As vote totals trickled in, they overheard GOP officials preparing to announce Santorum as the victor. UW Election Eye tweeted the breaking news at 9:58 p.m., beating The New York Times, CNN and other major news outlets. “Not that we noticed we were first,” wrote UW faculty member Anita Verna Crofts in a Feb. 8 blog post on the UW Election Eye website.

Of course they noticed. That’s what reporters call a scoop, and it’s intoxicating.

“You just don’t get that in the classroom,” says David Domke, chair of the Communication Department and the driving force behind UW Election Eye, a unique blogging partnership between the UW and The Seattle Times. “This is the future of higher education. I call it ‘the immersion experience,’ and it makes me a better professor.”

UW Election Eye brings together students and faculty from the undergraduate level, Master of Communication in Digital Media (MCDM), and Ph.D. program. All told, about 40 students across these programs have participated. That’s not typical at institutions the size of UW, but it’s a model that pushes students to learn from each other. “We’ve really built a team,” Domke says.

This innovative partnership was privately funded by a supporter of the Department of Communication who wanted students at all levels to experience the democratic process up close. CityClub of Seattle and the MCDM program also contributed financially to the project, and Domke got The Seattle Times on board early.

“When we see opportunities for magic, I’m blessed to work with students and colleagues who seize the opportunity,” says Verna Crofts, associate director of the Master of Communication in Digital Media program and a faculty leader of the project. “It’s really a model for departments across campus to explore a structure of private funding and integrated learning.”

UW Election Eye began with a handful of students covering the Republican presidential primary campaign but has since grown to include other national, state and local issues as well. In the spring, it expanded to include two fully enrolled undergraduate and master’s-level courses. The team works closely with staff at The Seattle Times, which hosts and maintains the blog at Students and faculty have also appeared on KUOW and KCTS, and the project is expected to continue at least through Election Day in November.

“It’s been very cool, very compelling, and very different content for us to put in front of newspaper readers,” says Jim Simon, assistant managing editor at the Times who teaches political reporting at UW. “They’ve given us a really fresh, really Northwest view of what’s going on. That’s the sort of content we don’t usually get from wire services.”

In 2008, Domke and 16 undergraduates embarked on a similar blogging project, the forerunner to UW Election Eye, and focused on that year’s historic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Domke, a former journalist who has written two books on presidential politics, wanted more for the 2012 campaign. So he secured funding and led a small team to South Carolina for the hotly contested Republican primary on Jan. 21. UW communication alum David Horsey, ’75, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist, joined the crew for the trip.

In the eight months since, UW Election Eye has rubbed elbows with Callista Gingrich and Ann Romney in the “Green Room” just moments before the GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. They snapped front-row photos of Texas Gov. Rick Perry ending his bid for the White House in a small Charleston, S.C. hotel conference room.

“It just kept getting better,” Domke says. “Every step of the way, people were contributing new things. It’s been an indescribable learning experience for these students.”

Derek Belt is a frequent contributor to Columns

Tales from the Road

Columbia, South Carolina {January 18, 2012}—It was the first real day I was with UW Election Eye and we had just touched down in South Carolina. David (Domke) was getting the rental car, and I wandered over to baggage claim. This woman asked what brought me to South Carolina, and I explained the UW Election Eye project. • She told me she had just decided to enlist, and I asked what inspired her to join the military. It was one of those magical moments where you establish enough trust with someone in about 30 seconds that they feel comfortable talking to you, because she looked over her shoulder and said it was because of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She said this was the first time she felt she could be herself in the military. • This was just an amazing moment when you’re witness to a part of the national story that humanizes what would otherwise be a sound bite. That’s when I knew I was hooked; that I would take UW Election Eye as far as it would carry me. —Anita Verna Crofts, MCDM Associate Director

Las Vegas, Nevada {February 4, 2012}—After successfully gaining access to the Nevada caucus “War Room,” UW Election Eye reporter and MCDM student Corey Christiansen and I roamed the bowels of the Venetian hotel, searching for the Newt Gingrich press conference. After busting in through an unmarked side door, we found it. Newt stood on a platform, looking the most comfortable I’d ever seen him, despite losing the state. His banter with the press was masterful, every response a witty jibe, and the room just ate it up. • I silently rehearsed my words and raised my hand. “Do you think the mistaken (Donald) Trump endorsement was intentional, and are you hoping for any other endorsements?” Newt didn’t miss a beat. “Look, there are few people better at manipulating the press than Donald Trump and he proved it once again,” he retorted with arms outstretched. • The room chuckled while I floated to journalistic cloud nine. He later thanked me for my question. —Ilona Idlis, Undergraduate Journalism Student

Sandpoint, Idaho {March 5, 2012}—I was part of the team covering Washington and Idaho’s Republican caucuses earlier this year. We traveled something like 1,500 miles in five days, and I ended up live-tweeting a 9,000-person caucus while sitting next to a CNN reporter. Also, at one rally, Ron Paul and I wore matching outfits. • I call it the “All-American” look—blue denim jeans, plaid button-up shirt, cozy red sweater and black boots. Fashion is a serious consideration for candidates; one doesn’t want to look too formal or too casual. But I was a bit surprised by Paul’s copycat outfit because he’s not often spotted without a suit and tie. That morning, I looked at fellow UW Election Eye contributor Ilona Idlis and said, “This looks like something a politician would wear, doesn’t it?” That statement became really eerie later on. —Alicia Halberg, ’12, Journalism Graduate

Florence, South Carolina {January 15, 2012}—I’ve been with Dr. Domke twice counting my first time through, in 2008, and this year. Back then I was an undergraduate; now I’m a Ph.D. student. One of my favorite moments was running into Rick Santorum at a small restaurant. Domke and the rest of our group were in the gaggle of press that was following the former senator, but I had stayed behind at our table to watch our gear. • “Where is everybody?” Santorum asked me, shaking my hand. “They’re following you,” I told him. He smiled and said, “Ah, reporters.” It was surreal and also very human—classic retail politics. And always an honor to witness up close, as messy and nutty as it can get. —Will Mari, ’09, Journalism Graduate and Ph.D. Student

Milwaukee, Wisconsin {May 31, 2012}—It was obvious Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s first college professor, Janet Boles, wanted to show me his mediocre grades. The embattled Tea Party hero’s college grades were a hot topic during his May recall election and Boles, a Professor Emeritus at Marquette University, had archived the assignments and scores for every student she taught for 29 years. • Boles knew she shouldn’t show me her grade books. Marquette forbids it. I asked why it mattered if she’s retired. After declining to let me photograph the governor’s grades, I got up to leave with a favorite Columbo maneuver: “Ma’am, just one more thing. How about a picture of you just holding those books?” • Next thing I knew, she was opening up a page with the governor’s grades. “Oh, I suppose a quick picture wouldn’t hurt.” The key to persistence is politeness. —Thor Tolo, ’12, MCDM Graduate

Charleston, South Carolina {January 20, 2012}—The night before the South Carolina primary, we went to a dinner for Rick Santorum hosted at The Citadel. Now, I do not agree with nearly all of what Santorum stands for, but that night he told the story about how he and his wife had lost their youngest son, how hard it was for them as a family, and how that made him realize just how critical the gift of life is. He began crying on stage, and in the background you could see his wife was crying as well. Immediately following the speech, they embraced for a long time and the raw emotion of that moment could be felt all across the room. • Suddenly this political figure that I had watched for days and seen destroyed in the press for months was no longer someone just running for president; he was a human being. We see these people all the time in the news and sometimes forget they are real people with stories and reasons why they believe what they believe. • Santorum will never get my vote, but in that moment he earned a certain level of respect and connection from me that will last much longer than his candidacy did. —Almeera Anwar, ’12, Journalism Graduate

One Response to The New Scoop on Political Journalism

  1. Ron Scheurer - 229990 - Class of 1981 says:

    In Political Journalism’s New Angle; ‘Tales From the Road’ congratulations to Anita V. Crofts, Ilona Idlis, Alicia Halberg, Will Mari, Thor Tolo, and Almeera Anwar for their insights in capturing the street level personal views of real people (politicians; nay all of us) rather than simply reporting the prepared performances of real people turned actors before audiences whom they wish to influence.

    Sound bites sell advertising. Humanistic reporting does not. Which may be why the plausible fictions of literature may be more widely read and revealing of the truth of humanity than the supposed non-fictional objectivity of the world’s main stream press.

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