Writing Candidate Profiles

Writing Candidate Profiles

These notes are for people writing profiles of candidates contesting elections.

We aim to provide the sort of information the electorate needs in order to make informed choices about who to vote for.

The key here is to remember that it is the voter’s decision. Your job is to avoid picking sides, while finding out the facts (including a range of peoples’ views) and reporting them accurately and fairly.

This means you have to say some of what is already in the public domain, in order to provide background for the audience, and you have to add new information in order to provide greater understanding about the candidate.

In some cases you will be introducing an unknown candidate to the public. In other cases you will be discussing a well-known person. Either way the above principles apply.

Below is a list of things you might consider for the profile. Obviously you won’t be able to do all of the things on this list so you should aim to cover the most important and interesting. 

Research, research, research.

As you are preparing your story and before you interview the candidate, spend the time to research their life and work thoroughly. Know where they stand on issues or how they have voted or campaigned on important matters. Find out where they have come from and what they have done in their professional life. This pre-interview research is vitally important and will ensure you don’t waste the opportunity.

Sources of information:

There are lots of places to look for information about candidates. Here are some to consider: 

  • Parliamentary websites to find maiden speeches of sitting MPs.
  • Hansard for details about their parliamentary performances or whether they have been referred to by a parliamentarian.
  • Hansard often includes details about committee work.
  • Council minutes for details about local councillors
  • Council sub-committee minutes if they argued matters before Council committees, perhaps even as members of the public.
  • Social media (apply ethical practice, avoid breaching privacy)
  • austlii.edu.au – the legal database, to see if they have been before courts
  • ASIC corporate searches to see what companies they own or whether they serve as a director or board member.
  • Local newspaper searches to see what they have been involved with at a local level.
  • Transcripts from radio programs, especially Radio National programs.
  • The AM, PM, World Today archive of old programs dating back to 1996.
  • Company reports for publicly listed companies
  • Searchable media sites with archived stories.
  • Former and current colleagues.
  • Industry experts.
  • Community leaders.
  • Current and former party/faction members.
  • Social media sites (more on this below)

What if the candidate won’t talk?

If the candidate won’t talk to you, you can still profile them by researching their past and present activities and by talking to those who know them. Sometimes doing this work will show the candidate that you are serious and it might be worthwhile re-asking for an interview after you have done this research and conducted interviews with people who know the candidate.

The candidate may say that they are only prepared to answer your questions if you submit them by email. Be careful about this approach and discuss it with your tutor. You could inform the reader that this is how the candidate insisted on being interviewed and you should follow-up whatever questions the candidate dodged or gave inadequate answers to.

Remember the “color” of the interview. 

It is often useful to provide a sense of where and when the interview was conducted, how the candidate came across and how receptive they were to your questions. Include some of this color in the piece for the benefit of the readers.

Style of profile

Follow your lecturer’s guidance on whether your profile should be a news story or a feature. Either way, make the lead strong – remembering that the first line will become the “precede”  to attract readers into the story.

Write it crisply, without clichés and flowery adjectives.

On or off the record?

Before the interview begins, please ensure you clarify with the candidate that they are on-the-record and that what they say could be published on the national UniPollWatch website. Inform them that you will be writing a story based in part on what they, and others, tell you. Make this clear at the beginning so that there is no risk of them claiming afterwards that they thought they were off-the-record.

If they insist on going off-the-record during the interview, define what they mean by that term. Can you still use what they say if you don’t identify the candidate as the source? Or do they want you to hear what they’re telling you but don’t want you to use any of it?

Only agree to go off-the-record if you want to. If you don’t want them to go off-the-record then make sure they know that.

Check your facts

Check your facts

Re-check your facts.

Re-re-check your facts.

What if the candidate wants to check my story afterwards?

The candidate may ask that you send the story to them to vet or check before it is published. This can be a dangerous strategy, as it might cramp your style as a writer or allow them to take out things that they don’t think look so good, even though they said and meant them at the time of the interview. Perhaps you could offer to check quotes and facts and complex matters with them without giving them all your material? Check with your tutor if this arises.

Photographs of the candidates

Please take some photos of the candidate, with their permission, and include them with your story. Photographs are very important as ways of raising the profile of your piece on the website and to help reveal who the candidate is and what they stand for. So take the time to do this well, with high quality and high-res images.

Ensure the photos are clear and identify the candidate. Make the pics medium close-up, and not wide-angle or taken from a distant. Take both landscape and portrait pictures. They should reveal something of the personality of the candidate but be respectful of the subjects. Avoid mug shots or photos that look lie passport pictures. Allow for some context in the shot and try and avoid clichéd images.

Is the candidate already well known?

We shouldn’t assume that readers know a great deal about the candidate, even if they are active in the public arena already…so be prepared to provide background so that the reader quickly understands their past. In addition, ask yourself whether the candidate has done something in the last few years that has made them notorious or notable? If so, what? What have they learnt from this? What effect has this had on them? Will their experiences help or hinder their chances in this election?

Where did the candidate come from?

Where were they born and raised? Is where they went to school relevant?  Did they grow up in or outside the electorate? How did their upbringing shape them and prepare them for representing the electorate? What aspects of their family background are interesting and relevant?

What have they done in their professional lives?

What were they doing before politics? What have they done in their career? If they have little experience, what are their qualifications for public office? What other aspects of their life are interesting and relevant? Have they been involved in controversial issues? Perhaps a commercial development or a protest movement? A different political party?

EXAMPLE: You should aim to say some things about the candidate that the public doesn’t already know. Here’s how The New Daily tackled a profile of Peter Dutton. It’s a listical. We’re writing news stories but it shows how interesting sources of information can be used for a story.

http://thenewdaily.com.au/news/2016/01/04/15-things-didnt-know-peter-dutton/

Personal questions?

Use your judgment and apply ethical thinking when it comes to personal questions.  People standing for public office can, and should, expect some personal questioning, but apply common sense about what is relevant and reasonable. If candidates are living lives at odds with the things they stand for, they should expect to be questioned about it. Politicians who have life-threatening medical conditions – or are in situations that might mean they’re unable to properly function as MPs – should expect questioning from reporters. If candidates are receiving unusual levels of support from powerful relatives or are in feuds with former friends it is reasonable to make enquiries. If you are in doubt, discuss this with your tutor. There are often ethical ways to ask about and report on relevant and important personal matters.

EXAMPLE: This story is about a candidate who had received treatment for cancer before the Victorian election campaign. She declined to talk but this story demonstrates that relevant personal issues can be dealt with in a matter-of-fact way and with some sensitivity.

http://www.unipollwatch.org.au/donna-bauer-liberal-carrum/

Social media?

Take a look at the candidate’s social media presence. What are they saying? Have they said things they might now regret? Or which reveal their true values? What platforms are they using? Are they sophisticated in their use of social media (and how are they using it during the campaign?)

What does the candidate stand for?

Are they moved by an issue? Are they committed to a cause? Are they a ‘conviction politician?’ Do they describe themselves as a ‘small l liberal’ or a ‘moral conservative’ or a ‘social progressive’ or an ‘economic dry’ or a ‘wet’ or a combination of some of these – or something else altogether? Why so? And how do others describe them? Why so?

EXAMPLE: This is a good example of a candidate who holds highly controversial opinions. Our job is to help the public to discover and report what candidates believe in so that voters can make informed decisions before voting.

http://www.unipollwatch.org.au/candidate-says-islamic-marriage-leads-to-handicapped-children/

Do they have seemingly inconsistent views on issues?

Do they have views that don’t fit neatly with their party? Have their views on an issue changed over time?  To find out this information you will probably need to dig around and research their past and present statements.

For example, Former treasurer and MP Joe Hockey as a student activist opposed university tuition fees. As treasurer he sought to deregulate the sector, thus allowing fee levels to skyrocket.

Do they have a troubled past?

Does the candidate have a skeleton in their closet? Something they’d rather the world didn’t know? Have they been in trouble with the law?

…or a troubled future?

Is legal action pending against them? Are they facing bankruptcy or even just a series of speeding fines?

How did they get pre-selection?

This may not be a factor for independent candidates, but ask how they get pre-selected to become a candidate representing whatever party or interest group they represent. Was there a factional battle? Did a factional boss champion or challenge their candidacy? If so, who lost out in this squabble? What happened? Does it reveal something about the kind of person or politician they are?

EXAMPLE: This 7.30 piece demonstrates that factions exist in the major parties. It reveals the level of anger in the NSW Liberal party about the pre-selection of Liberal candidates.

http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2015/s4402716.htm

Are they a dummy candidate?

This is a serious allegation to make so be careful about how this is done and discuss this with your tutor. Dummy candidates stand in elections in order to attract votes from a certain community, which the candidate then sends on to another candidate in the form of preferences. So ask yourself whether the candidate is close to another candidate and whether they might be standing to provide support for that person.

EXAMPLE: Dummy candidates are most associated with local council elections, as this piece in The Age demonstrates. http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/11/13/1100227635363.html?from=storylhs

Are they a celebrity candidate?

Did a party leader handpick the candidate?  Are the party’s factions upset about this? Does this mean that a good strong local candidate has missed out? Will the candidate prosper in parliament without a strong faction supporting them?

What does the candidate want to do if elected?

What’s the burning issue? Have they got an agenda? Are they biding their time, attempting to build a power-base, while waiting for an opportunity to implement something that’s important to them? Do they want to do something that is difficult to discuss because the electorate might not agree with it or understand it? Does the candidate understand the party’s platform and policies?

What else about this person is interesting and important to know?