Every reporter struggles to find balance between giving readers lots of good, relevant information and writing their stories in a way that moves them smoothly and logically from point to point.
Often, those objectives compete with each other. A lot of details can bog stories down and make it hard to read. We constantly weight the value of a piece of information against its effect on the writing of the story.
In my Saturday story on the perception of Boise as a divided city, I made what I now believe was the wrong decision on this front.
I wrote that Ada County Highway District Commissioner Sara Baker, who served on the Boise City Council between 1986 and 2001, thinks the city should move to district-based elections as a way of ensuring representation of each geographic area.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
After the story ran, Baker pointed out — correctly — that the kind of district-based election she believes in is not what many people might think of when they read that term. Baker likes the idea of requiring that candidates live in specific geographic districts, but allowing voters from all over the city to cast ballots in every race.
Ada County commissioners are elected in this way. Think of it as a hybrid between at-large elections — where any qualified candidates can run, no matter where they live, and voters from all over the city pick the winners — and what I think of as traditional district-based elections, in which only voters from specific districts vote on representatives from the same districts.
The highway district observes the latter format. The city follows the former.
Technically, this statement in Saturday's story was correct: "Baker thinks district-based elections would improve the Boise council's responsiveness to issues in every corner of the city."
But, as Baker pointed out, it doesn't do her stance justice. Partly, that's because it was presented in the context of this quote on district-based elections from council President Maryanne Jordan:
“It can make people very parochial,” she said. “If their only accountability is to a certain district, then they’re not going to be making decisions on a citywide basis. Right now, when we sit down to do budgeting and talk about parks, planning and everything, what are we looking at? We’re looking at where the needs are citywide, not people making deals and fighting for their own districts.”
It's clear to me that Jordan, in this quote, is referring to the traditional style of district-based elections. The potential for parochialism is exactly why Baker believes the hybrid system is the right way to go.
I knew that when I wrote the story, but I avoided an explanation because I worried it would make it less readable.
Now I'm kicking myself. Not just because I presented Baker's stance in a misleading way, which is bad enough. I also missed an opportunity to explain a nuance that would've enriched the story.
Maybe something like this: "Baker offers a middle ground: Elections in which candidates can only run for council seats that correspond to the districts they live in, but allowing voters from all over the city to decide those contests."
It seems to me that sentence would have more accurately portrayed what Baker believes and actually improved the writing at the end of the story.