The pandemic made nearly every facet of life more complicated. That, in turn, altered what kind of news people needed.
In response, many journalists offered a “back to basics” journalism, distilling key issues to help make them easy to understand and act upon.
Greater complexity was particularly true of voting in 2020, where many states were changing election processes in response to the pandemic to help ensure safe voting. The amount and pace of change shifted the ground under many voters. Though such uncertainty could have depressed turnout, the 2020 election featured the highest voter turnout in, by some measures, more than 100 years.
Election workers and public officials worked hard to ensure eligible votes were counted. And journalists, locally and nationally, focused more on the mechanics of voting this year. Through the Trusted Elections Network Fund, we were able to support several newsrooms working to provide basic information about the election.
The following takeaways from our grantees can help guide coverage of future elections and indeed many other issues.
1. Share basic voting information in multiple formats and optimized across platforms to reach audiences where they are.
Audiences looking for basic information about voting may not begin their search with your primary news product.
Charlotte’s public radio station WFAE produces election guides each cycle but emphasized the basics of voting in 2020 based on responses to an audience survey early in the year. This basic information also formed the foundation for interactive content on social media.
“We were particularly successful with our interactive election social media posts, such as polls asking our readers about their voting habits and quizzes on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook Stories to test their knowledge on the upcoming election. Due to the reactions we have seen from our audience during the 2020 election, we will be implementing more interactive content across all of our platforms.” — WFAE
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch boosted its standard election guide with Facebook ads and videos intended to be shared on social media. As a result, engagement by audiences younger than 34 was significantly higher compared with previous election cycles.
Enlace Latino, a statewide Spanish-language nonprofit news outlet in North Carolina, produced an election guide that included infographics and animated videos with basic information about how to register to vote, key deadlines and absentee voting. The shareable graphics were especially successful on social media and WhatsApp.
2. Tailor basic information so audiences can quickly decide if it’s relevant.
The Hastings Banner in Barry County, Michigan, divided its print election guide geographically to help quickly direct coverage that was most relevant to their readers based on their location.
“Take a precinct-by-precinct approach, if possible, so the coverage is “close to home” and the content is focused squarely on the readers it’s intended to serve. Explain why specific procedures are followed. Even small details can be very important.” — The Hastings Banner
The Washington City Paper offered a new email newsletter focused on the election, asking subscribers to identify their voter registration status. The emails then featured voting information tailored and timed for each audience segment.
“Our ability to let our project’s participants self-segment based on voter registration status was an important part of the success of this project. It enabled us to provide tailored and specific information to these users, meeting their unique informational needs. Indeed, the open rates for our messages to those who had identified as either registered voters or unregistered voters exceeded our initial email explaining the project and asking them to self-identify their registration status. — The Washington City Paper
3. Fill information gaps — topics that others aren’t covering — with basic information that’s easy to find.
Consistently, outlets participating in the Trusted Elections Network Fund emphasized the success of their coverage of relatively underreported races, like those for Soil and Water Conservation Districts, judicial positions or ballot initiatives where trusted information about the positions and candidates are difficult to find.
For example, the nonprofit news site Nevada Independent found that such coverage performed well in terms of both traffic and engagement.
“Our judicial candidate evaluations and our ballot question explainers were runners-up for most website hits and most social media engagement, reinforcing that our audience is looking for information that helps them make informed decisions at the ballot box.” — The Nevada Independent
The Mississippi Free Press heard repeatedly from audiences around the state that people were confused about where to vote. The Free Press then tracked down the most up-to-date information about polling place locations, many of which had changed from the previous election.
“Many circuit clerk’s offices had told curious voters that they can check their accurate voting precinct information on the Secretary of State’s website. However, had we [not reported this information], our readers and public officials would not have known about the dozens of polling stations that were inaccurately listed on the [Secretary of State’s] database and that the secretary of state had to correct the day before the election due to this reporting. Without this project, many Mississippians wouldn’t have had correct information.” — Mississippi Free Press
4. Translate basic information for non-English speaking audiences.
Many potential voters seek information in languages other than English and may not be able to find reliable, up-to-date, or in some cases, even intelligible answers to their questions.
The Philadelphia Inquirer translated its comprehensive voting FAQs into Spanish, Vietnamese, and Simplified and Traditional Chinese. The Inquirer also worked to make sure the information was accessible, optimizing the FAQ for organic search, running paid and organic (unpaid) campaigns on social media, and partnering with community organizations and community media to increase the reach of its voting resources. The multi-pronged approach was critical in helping to reach new audiences.
“It was very interesting to see how audience acquisition differed between the languages. Generally speaking, social and search performed best for Spanish, while direct links were the biggest factor for Vietnamese and Chinese. The paid campaigns also had stark differences: Vietnamese significantly outperformed the other languages, garnering the most significant volume of clicks, even compared with the English version.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Nevada Independent also translated some of its election coverage for its Spanish-language audiences. Feedback from readers revealed that how information was presented made a difference for those readers.
“Our Spanish-language readers seem to prefer shorter, more condensed and bullet-type information as opposed to the longer explainers we tend to produce on the English side of our reporting. We are reconsidering our approach to Spanish content across the board.” — The Nevada Independent
The nonprofit Longmont Leader in Colorado regularly translates its English-language coverage into Spanish. In 2020, its Spanish-language voter guide was particularly successful in reaching new and younger audiences seeking basic information about voting.
“We were surprised to learn that all of our Spanish language readers of the voter guide were under the age of 45. More than 65 percent of the Leader’s overall readership is over the age of 45, so we were surprised to see this group skewing so universally young. For first-time visitors who prefer Spanish, it was the most-viewed story on our site. Most of our pageviews came from organic searches from Google and other search engines, followed by direct links.” — Longmont Leader
In Detroit, Serena Maria Daniels, of Tostada Magazine and First Draft, created infographics with basic voting information in English, Spanish, Arabic and Bengali to share on Facebook and Instagram. She partnered with community groups and other local news outlets to help share the graphics.
“[Audiences are] hungry for content that is available in formats that are not traditionally available in outlets that typically provide this sort of information.” — Serena Maria Daniels
The Santa Cruz Local, a digital media outlet in Santa Cruz County, California, made a point to solicit questions and concerns from Spanish-speaking communities to help guide its coverage. That approach helped the Local build new relationships in its community and helped make its coverage more representative of Santa Cruz.
“We compiled a People’s Agenda — a list of the top concerns and questions people had. We pressed the candidates on those issues and produced a podcast series and candidate forum series with those questions and interviews, as well as an Elections Guide, which we were able to translate into Spanish.” — Santa Cruz Local
The work of providing basic information may seem unglamorous, but in many communities, it’s filling a critical need. Indeed, when reliable information is unavailable, bad or outright false information tends to fill the gaps. Basic, explanatory reporting can also offer an entry point into journalism for new audiences.
WFAE reminds us that this approach is vital to democracy: “Don’t discount the importance of going back to the basics to explain things like voting, voting laws and civic processes. As journalists we can take some of this for granted, but people at every socioeconomic level we engaged with had questions about these areas.”
This article is part of a series on lessons from Trusted Elections Network Fund grantees. See the rest of the articles in the series here.