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Covering the Capitol

"People in Minnesota really care about government and politics," notes Political Editor Mike Mulcahy. "It's no surprise that we consistently lead the nation in voter turnout." And it's no surprise that political coverage is a mainstay of Minnesota Public Radio News. The challenge: to provide the most objective, intelligent, in-depth coverage possible.

Minnesota Public Radio News' political reporters talk with lawmakers at the Capitol regularly, but telling the whole story as it plays out in cities, neighborhoods and individual lives across the state means extending that conversation to the people affected by the legislation. "We constantly strive to make sure that our working relationships with Capitol insiders don't affect our coverage," says Capitol Bureau Chief Laura McCallum. "The best way to do that is to avoid relying too heavily on a couple of sources for stories, and to talk to lots of people outside the Capitol. During session, plenty of average citizens come to the Capitol to try to influence the process, so we hear other perspectives."

Another key to objective political reporting: "We question everything. We want documentation of facts, and data to back up claims," says McCallum. "We probe behind the claims and political spin, and point out when politicians aren't telling the whole story."

It's a challenging job given the fast pace and the daily deadlines as McCallum and fellow political reporters Tim Pugmire and Tom Scheck produce stories every day during the session. The coverage goes beyond the official line, but it also goes in depth. "We don't dumb down our stories," McCallum notes. "We try to go beyond the 'he said, she said' black-and-white approach that's common in political coverage, and explore the motivations and competing interests behind public policy and politics."

That depth is matched by the breadth of coverage, which spans a wide range of issues all tied back to what happens on the floor of the Legislature and on the campaign trail. "We take an in-depth approach to both session coverage and campaign coverage," McCallum explains. "We focus on the major issues at the Capitol, including health care, education, the state budget, the environment and transportation. I do weekly updates with Morning Edition highlighting upcoming issues and analyzing what's happening at the Capitol. We provide live coverage of events such as the governor's State of the State address and the political conventions."

Both McCallum and Mulcahy note the growing role of Minnesota Public Radio News' online political coverage as a resource for background on the issues, interactive tools and more. Says McCallum: "Political junkies tell me they rely on our Web site for both session and campaign coverage."

Ultimately, say Mulcahy and McCallum, the purpose of the coverage is to contribute to a more informed citizenry better prepared at the ballot box. Says Mulcahy: "Our goal is to provide a good sense of how and why elected officials are making decisions that have an impact on their lives and the future of the state."

(This article also appeared in the June 2006 "Plugged In" section of Minnesota Monthly.)

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