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How NHPR Plans To Cover the 2020 Candidate Debates

The 2020 general election is November 3. A sign that says "vote" in capital letters sits in a yard.
Britta Greene for NHPR

In an effort to improve transparency around coverage of the 2020 elections, NHPR wants to answer your questions about how we cover the news.

NHPR's Program Director Michael Brindley joined Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley to talk about how New Hampshire Public Radio covers political candidates and how we prepare for live interviews with those candidates.

If you have questions about NHPR's election coverage, please send us an email at or fill out our survey. We'd like to hear from you about what you'd like see from our coverage and how you think we could do better.

Rick Ganley: So The Exchange, our call-in show here on NHPR, is holding a series of live debates with candidates this month, and the first is happening tomorrow. Can you explain how NHPR debates will differ from the ones voters might watch, you know, in the presidential race? And you know what do we try to focus on?

Michael Brindley: So as far as how they'll be the same, you know, we're going to be sticking to a pretty traditional format, you know, minute responses per candidate. If one candidate is attacked, the other one will have a chance to, you know, respond directly. So we're going to stick to the format and make sure that they can stick to the format. That's important as well. As far as how it's different, listeners and viewers -- we're going to have this on Facebook Live -- probably notice that we're going to be trying to adhere to COVID health guidelines. Everybody will be in their own control room here at the studio, separate, but be able to see each other on video. So that will be different for us and for the candidates, but really hoping to keep it as seamless as possible for them. We'll also have two hosts, Laura Knoy, will be hosting with one of the members of the newsroom here at NHPR for the first debate on Wednesday, that will be with Peter Biello.

Ganley: So the format is that they'll have a certain amount of time, each candidate, as you would see on a televised debate. But we expect a little more decorum, I imagine, than we saw last week.

Brindley: That's what we're hoping for, yes. And you also asked about, you know, the topics as well.  You know, so we have our, you know, what we feel is top of mind for voters. Of course, the pandemic really is a huge topic ... that will come up, health care, climate change, economy. But we're also ... we've also been asking for questions from listeners as well. For the past couple of weeks. We've had a surveywhere people could fill out on, where they can submit their questions for the candidates. We've received probably, you know, 20-30 questions. We go through those try to find one is that we feel really could be good for each debate and we use those also to help let us know what's on listeners' minds. We've seen a lot about climate change, a lot about abortion laws, we've seen a lot about the economy and Social Security, Medicare. So it's interesting to see what comes in, and we use those questions to help guide the direction of the debate.

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Ganley: I know one question that came up many times, Michael, was how do you determine which races are worth covering? And, you know, and how much depth do you give that coverage? How does this question apply to how The Exchange team has decided which races to hold debates for?

Brindley: Well, for The Exchange's purposes, you know, in terms of just the biggest impact from what we can do, we look at the major races for, you know, statewide office and congressional seats. So for the purposes of this year, that would be the governor, the U.S. Senate race, and also the two congressional districts. Of course, there are a lot of really important races down ballot - state Senate, Executive Council, but we just don't have the bandwidth to hold debates for each of those. So we take those resources and apply them to what we feel will have the largest impact. So for those those four races, we're going to hold debates for this year.

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Ganley: And how about which candidates to invite? How do you determine when a third party candidate should be included in a debate?

Brindley: Sure. And we have this discussion each election cycle to make sure that we still feel, you know, the threshold we use is fair and applies each time. So for this series of debates, we are actually using the same standard we used in 2018, which was for the party to have received at least 5 percent support in the previous election. So basically we feel that's ... and that was a decision made in consultation with news leadership as well, so together we made this decision. It's a threshold that we determined was a minimum standard for really a public support to warrant dedicating a third of the debate time to certain candidates.

Ganley: Well, into another topic that we've heard a lot about from listeners, Michael, is how any plans to hold candidates accountable? You know, how does the team planned it to fact check what politicians are saying in these debates, you know, live on the air?

Brindley: So I'd say a lot of the work that goes into that is happening right now in the research process for, you know, the questions we're going to ask each candidate. We research what they've said on particular issues to be prepared for, you know, statements that in the past have not really been very accurate. And so we're going to be do our best to be prepared in real-time to be able to push back on them on that. So I'd say a lot of the work that happens is before the debate; during the debate, there may be things that come up that we aren't, you know, prepared for or they may say that are inaccurate, that we may not be able to check or fact-check in real-time. So we're going to do our best to be prepared for, you know, being able to push them on statements they've said or in the past that are inaccurate.

Ganley: So oftentimes we have to go back and clarify some things online after the fact.

Brindley: Correct.

Ganley: It's just something you have to do if you're having a candidate on in real-time, as you said. 

Brindley: We're going to do our best. 

Ganley: Well, any NHPR listeners, if you do have questions about our election coverage, please send us an email at We do plan to have another conversation this month about how NHPR is planning to cover Election Day. Michael Brindley is NHPR's program director, thanks so much.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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