With two weeks to go before Election Day, API hosted a discussion with journalists from The Associated Press last week to go over ways newsrooms can fine-tune their coverage plans. We’ve compiled tips that might help local newsrooms in the final days before the midterm elections.
Two years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic, changing election laws and the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the balloting – amplified by the then-president and his allies – presented newsrooms with new and unexpected challenges.
What did journalists learn from the 2020 election? Plenty. And it’s a good thing because since then new and different challenges have cropped up. While pandemic pressures have eased somewhat since 2020, said AP reporter Christina Cassidy, new conspiracy theories have spread, some states have added new voting restrictions, election officials have faced death threats, local elections offices have experienced high turnover, and early voters are facing acts of intimidation.
Such changes are forcing reporters and editors to constantly fine-tune their coverage plans.
From our discussion, we’ve created a checklist of preparations that journalists should have in place or should assemble in the final days that remain before Nov. 8. Here are some of the takeaways:
✅ Line up your sources in advance
This is important so that reporters are not trying to develop sources while reporting a breaking story. Those contacts include: local election clerks and their deputies; the local election certification or canvassing board; state election officials; local party leaders; local law enforcement; and voting rights groups.
✅ Know the number of mail-in ballots that have been requested, sent and returned in your jurisdiction
This matters because any delays in returned ballots could create stress for election workers, and slow down their work. Reporters will need to put those delays in context.
✅ Get the data on how many people voted early
This can give reporters a sense of what in-person voting will look like on Election Day.
✅ Understand the technology used in your jurisdiction
This will help you explain any problems without having to learn it all on Election Day, and to put them in context. “Elections are messy, mistakes happen, equipment breaks down and it’s not necessarily a sign of foreign interference or a systemwide failure,” said Cassidy, who recently published an explainer on voting technology.
✅ Know the poll-worker staffing levels at your local precincts
Some jurisdictions have experienced high turnover among election workers and directors. Fewer people at the polls, or a need to train a new election workforce, can slow down the process. That will need to be explained to communities.
✅ Be aware of any polling-place changes
These need to be effectively communicated to the community. And if people haven’t been adequately informed, why not?
✅ Have a handle on the rules governing poll watchers
Traditionally poll watchers – people who volunteer to monitor the voting process for political parties – have been fairly innocuous, said the AP’s democracy editor, Tom Verdin. Now they are being trained and coached to be more aggressive in challenging voters. Reporters should know in advance the rules poll watchers must follow and how local elections officials plan to handle them if they become aggressive.
✅ Know new laws in your jurisdiction
Some states have enacted new laws that will make it harder for people to vote, either in person or by mail. In Texas, for example, a new law meant that an abnormally high number of mail ballots were rejected during the primary, according to an AP analysis. Understanding such laws will be essential to writing about the impact on voters.
✅ Explain how new laws might affect your state’s voters
This will prepare people for what they might encounter at the polls, said Gary Fields, a reporter on the AP democracy team. In Georgia, a new law prohibited people from handing water or snacks to voters in line at the polls. In response, one group is planning to hold block parties near, but not at, the polls.
✅ Familiarize yourself with the litigation resulting from these laws
Suits challenging new laws will lay out the arguments and the stakes involved. They will also identify the parties involved, as well as their attorneys, allowing reporters to build those sources, said Fields.
✅ Know your jurisdiction’s drop-box situation
There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about drop boxes, said Verdin, so it is important for reporters to know their locations, how many there are, the level of security they have and the rules and laws governing their use.
✅ Look out for misinformation aimed at suppressing the vote or misleading voters
This is often aimed at non-English speakers, in an attempt to frighten voters or confuse them, said AP misinformation reporter David Klepper, who cited a case in Kansas where people received misleading text messages this summer about an abortion referendum.
✅ Have a plan in place for violence at the polls
Newsrooms should have a plan in place for how to cover violence at the polls, as well as an understanding of the preparedness of local law enforcement for any kind of conflict at voting places.
✅ Think through how you’ll handle candidates who deny the election results
Some may refuse to accept that they’ve lost. It’s important to have a plan for countering the misinformation they will spread about the vote.
✅ Put long lines in context
Long lines aren’t a new phenomenon, and they need to be explained. Sometimes they are just a reflection of strong turnout. But they can also be an indication of a problem at the polling place, such as an equipment breakdown, difficulty with the check-in process or aggressive voting list maintenance that has led to voters being removed from the rolls or challenged.
✅ Don’t exaggerate normal irregularities
Occasional glitches with ballots or polling places will occur. It’s important to put those in context. A photo of a long line at one precinct, for example, can be striking, but the line could be temporary or it could lead people to believe there are long lines everywhere, dissuading them from voting.
✅ Use “prebunking” to head off misinformation
“Prebunking” anticipates expected falsehoods by debunking them before they circulate widely. “If you equip people with the facts and with information they need to make decisions in their lives, they are less likely to fall for and spread misinformation,” Klepper said.
✅ Explainers can address common falsehoods
Misinformation about the 2020 outcome continues to circulate, serving as the backdrop for a lot of false claims about mail ballots, voter registration and the mechanics of voting, Klepper said. Straightforward explainers, like the one AP did recently on whether noncitizens can vote, can address those falsehoods head-on.
✅ Watch for old content being repurposed as new
This has happened frequently in the past, when nefarious actors put out-of-context old photos or videos on social media, claiming they are recent.
✅ Watch for misinformation in new mediums
Misinformation travels not just on social media; it may be distributed via text messages, email or voicemail.
✅ Monitor misinformation on a variety of platforms
Klepper recommends going to Facebook, but also to other platforms like Gab and Telegram. It’s also important to know your community’s influencers, people who have a large following or those who have spread misinformation in the past.
✅ Understand how the certification process works
This will be important to know if a local jurisdiction may refuse to certify the election because officials object to the results, or if there is a coordinated effort among localities who refuse to act.
✅ Have an understanding of how races are called
Many newsrooms rely on the AP’s race calls, which are based on a rigorous standard (explained here). As Washington bureau chief Anna Johnson said, the AP does not make “projections” about who may win. AP waits until the winner is clear before calling a race.
✅ Think through how you’ll cover candidates who declare victory even when their race hasn’t been called
A candidate may declare victory before a race has been called. How will you cover that?
Finally, be aware that whatever happens this year will give you a sense of what will be needed for the general election in 2024, which is likely to require even more resources and effort.
The number and kinds of races that newsrooms must cover closely is expanding, as national groups attempt to influence the outcomes of contests that were once mostly local affairs. National political action committees, for example, have injected money into the races for local school boards.
“The scope of political coverage is growing,” said Steven Sloan, the AP’s deputy Washington bureau chief. “And it’s only going to get harder heading into 2024 when you throw a presidential contest into the mix.”