The pandemic created new challenges for journalists trying to help audiences make sense of a contentious election, one already complicated by abrupt shifts in voting processes and widespread misinformation spread online and by public officials. Just knowing how to vote safely was a major concern. In response, election reporting had to be rethought – in some cases adopting new approaches, in others adapting old ones – to ensure election coverage served the public good.
With support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, ElectionSOS and the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the American Press Institute created a Trusted Elections Network for newsrooms to share what they were doing and to be connected with experts in election administration and misinformation. We also created a Trusted Election Network Fund, which offered microgrants to 36 newsrooms taking on new projects to inform their audiences and communities during a period of rapid change. These microgrants gave participating newsrooms the opportunity to test new tools and approaches, build skills and deepen their coverage.
From these initiatives, three broad themes emerged. Our grantees found new ways to detect and address false information and are now considering how those methods might apply to future coverage. They centered audiences in their election coverage. And they found back-to-basics reporting became essential in times of confusion. These three articles offer a discussion of their approaches and how they can help other journalists strengthen future coverage, not just of elections but of civic life and governance more broadly.
- Addressing false information during the 2020 election and lessons for the future
- Building election coverage with audiences
- Amid uncertainty, back-to-basics reporting became essential in 2020 election coverage
The projects yielded rich insight into how to reach new audiences with basic election information in-person and on social platforms, identify and fill local information gaps, translate and distribute information to better serve audiences with non-English language preferences, build capacity to track and cover misinformation, and much more.
To learn more about each newsroom’s efforts, see the overviews of each grantee’s original project proposal below.
Arizona State University News Co/Lab and Spaceship Media (AZ): Engaging online to address election misinformation
The News Co/Lab at Arizona State University and Spaceship Media partnered to create an online dialogue about election misinformation, “Help!! Is this true?” The group comprised participants of the News Co/Lab’s free online media literacy course, which sought to help older adults make sense of the digital media environment in an election year. The group served as a moderated space for participants to discuss the election constructively and help guide reporting.
Avant-Youth (GA): Supporting young voters with basic election information
Avant-Youth produced a visual rundown of Georgia’s election process to inform younger voters about both the voting process and local and state offices and candidates for those offices.
Bangor Daily News (ME): Illustrating election complexity by focusing on undecided voters
The Bangor Daily News will set out to produce a weekly series up to the election following four undecided voters in Maine’s U.S. Senate race, exploring how uncommitted voters approach a contentious election. This series seeks to embrace complexity at a time of a polarized and oversimplified discourse, delving into the ways ranked choice voting, vote-by-mail and the pandemic are affecting voters.
The Beacon (MO): Serving voters digitally and in-person
The Beacon developed a text messaging campaign, digital voter guide, printed voter guide and social media assets with critical voter information, distributed with community partners in communities at risk for low voter turnout across the Kansas City metro.
Black Girl Media / First Draft (OH): Engaging Cleveland residents to identify and fill information gaps
Shana Black of Black Girl Media created a voting information guide for Cleveland’s African American voters and other communities of color. The guide sought to clear up misinformation targeted toward the community and fill data voids. Black Girl Media also produced a series of podcast episodes on the Black voting experience, featuring locals talking about why they planned to vote, reflecting on takeaways from the 2016 election and featuring young people voting in their first presidential election.
Charlottesville Tomorrow (VA): Producing election videos to reach more voters
Based on interviews and feedback from audience members around voting safely during the pandemic, Charlottesville Tomorrow expanded its 2020 Voter Guide to cover how, where and when to vote and vote safely. Charlottesville Tomorrow also produced video explainers about the election.
The Colorado Sun (CO): Offering multiple entry points into election coverage
The Colorado Sun launched a statewide voter-focused project to address mis- and disinformation about mail-ballot voting and the security of the election in Colorado. The project featured a pop-up explainer newsletter about how voting works and how the election is secured, a public forum on election security with local and state officials and an “ask us” portal for readers to submit questions and report concerns about voting through Election Day.
Detroit Free Press (MI): Devoting reporting resources to address false election narratives
The Detroit Free Press hired a full-time, temporary reporter to cover mis- and disinformation threats to the local vote in Michigan. The reporter investigated misleading stories circulating online and worked to clarify and correct the record by making content accessible across platforms to fill the voids where mis- and disinformation thrives.
Election Kit from Newspack (National): Creating a simple election guide to help newsrooms make coverage more accessible
Election Kit connected several trusted data sources to create a go-to-market, embeddable solution for newsrooms that wanted to provide a simple election guide for their readers online. Combining a candidate lookup tool and campaign finance data, the project provided prospective voters with a snapshot of the candidates, with links to more information on the source sites. This sample ballot tool originated as a project of The Chicago Reporter and was provided to partner Newspack newsrooms.
Enlace Latino NC (NC): Providing election information in multiple formats to reach a broader Spanish-language audience
Enlace Latino NC expanded its “Tu Voto es Poder” project informing the Latinx community that speaks Spanish as their first language in North Carolina about the electoral process. The project included information on voter registration, infographics with statistics and instructions, social media explainers, a WhatsApp network and podcasts.
The Hastings Banner (MI): Targeting voting information by geography
The Hastings Banner produced a digital and print Voters’ Guide to provide readers with both traditional information about all the local candidates and granular details about the voting process and individual polling places in Barry County — where, when and how to cast ballots.
Isthmus Community Media / WORT 89.9FM (WI): Partnering to distribute election coverage
Isthmus, in partnership with WORT 89.9FM, produced and distributed coverage of presidential candidate events in Wisconsin, with an emphasis on fact-checking; analysis on voting patterns in several swing communities across Wisconsin; and interviews with local election clerks to identify potential confusion with mail-in and absentee voting.
KALW Public Media (CA): Working with community to reach underserved audiences
Focusing on five precincts with the lowest voter turnout in the Bay Area, KALW created bilingual flyers with targeted elections coverage to hang on every door in each precinct; worked with neighborhood organizations and networks to solicit election-related questions; produced original reporting and Election Briefs about the voting process and statewide proposition and county ballot measures relevant to each precinct; and partnered with Spanish- and English-language outlets specific to each community to share and publicize content and events.
Kansas City Star (MO): Building trust through misinformation coverage
The Kansas City Star launched a multi-platform initiative focused on elections and misinformation to help ensure readers were informed and discerning consumers of political news. The initiative included a digital event on political misinformation, a user’s guide for spotting misinformation, and a podcast that helped explain the rigorous standards The Star applies to its fact-based political coverage.
KCAW (AK): Providing comprehensive local election coverage
KCAW developed a comprehensive voter guide as part of its digital Election Hub coverage. This hub included candidate statements for each elected office, audio from candidate forums, information on how/where to vote and more.
LevittownNow.com (PA): Providing additional reporting resources to cover local information gaps
LevittownNow.com supplemented its traditional election coverage with freelance reporting to cover polling places, candidates events and county board of elections offices during the tabulation of mail-in ballots.
The Longmont Leader / Compass Experiment (CO): Translating local election coverage
The Longmont Leader translated its voter guide and other election coverage into Spanish.
Mahoning Matters / Compass Experiment (OH): Offering up-to-date local election results
Mahoning Matters will provide readers with digestible, comprehensive election results down to the county level in real time to help readers better understand and track election results in an environment of widespread mis- and disinformation.
Malheur Enterprise (OR): Translating local election coverage
Malheur Enterprise translated its election coverage and relevant social posts into Spanish to better serve Spanish-speaking voters in rural Oregon.
Mississippi Free Press (MS): Deploying investigative resources to fill voting information gaps
Mississippi Free Press created a voter-centric election guide to let Mississippians know about changes to polling locations, poll worker shortages/opportunities and other critical voting information.
Mississippi State University, The Reflector (MS): Offering coverage to reach student audiences
The Reflector offered a four-issue series exploring four contests of critical import to its student readers.
Missoulian (MT): Covering less visible effects of the pandemic on voting
Missoulian’s election coverage focused on Montana’s tribal nations, highlighting critical voter information in the context of litigation about voting rules and the collapse of traditional campaigning due to the pandemic.
The Nevada Independent (NV): Offering a one-stop shop for voting information in multiple languages
The Nevada Independent continued its buildout of its comprehensive Election section — consisting of stories, fact checks, explainers, videos, campaign ad tracking, district maps and voter registration breakdowns, candidate information, how-to-vote instructions and more — and translated features and content to Spanish for Nevada’s large Spanish-speaking community.
The News & Observer (NC): Devoting resources to help audiences parse false election information
The News & Observer published consistent fact-checks regarding election and voting misinformation, created a highly shareable video tutorial to deconstruct political advertising, and hosted a virtual town hall meeting to listen to the concerns of voters in our region.
The Philadelphia Inquirer (PA): Translating election coverage into 5 languages
The Philadelphia Inquirer translated its English-language voting FAQ into Spanish, Simplified and Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese for audiences across its coverage area.
QCity Metro (NC): Producing video content to provide voting information to a broader audience
QCity Metro produced a series of short videos, as part of a larger voter guide, featuring local Black residents who lived through Jim Crow voter suppression in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, recalling the challenges they faced to cast a ballot. Each video included information about voter registration, mail-in ballots and more.
Santa Cruz Local (CA): Translating local election coverage
Santa Cruz Local translated its elections podcast transcripts and other election reporting into Spanish to complement its ongoing community engagement work and better serve the community’s Spanish-speaking audiences.
Scalawag (NC): Engaging and responding to audiences across platforms
Scalawag expanded its voting coverage, a multimedia and engagement-driven effort to provide information about voting across the South. Scalawag solicited questions via mail and text message about specific issues of concern to their audiences.
Serena Maria Daniels / First Draft (MI): Producing shareable graphics to reach audiences with voting information
Serena Maria Daniels produced tailored infographics in multiple languages to provide accurate information to Detroit-area voters, shared through social media and as flyers in public spaces.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO): Exploring promoted election content to reach new audiences
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch increased the reach of its voter guide by developing video comparisons of candidates and used those videos to purchase boosted posts on social media, especially Instagram and Facebook.
Tampa Bay Times (FL): Using text messages to providing voting information
The Tampa Bay Times offered a text messaging service to provide audiences with election information, complementing its existing Voter Q&A to solicit questions and send information to readers directly about polling places, voter deadlines (early voting, mail-in ballot requests, etc.) and any crucial Election Day information.
Tucson Sentinel (AZ): Producing an election guide on voting and election administration
Tucson Sentinel developed an easy-to-follow guide to election participation with information on how to register to vote, Arizona’s early voting system, how people can ask for a ballot and how they can ensure the ballot has been received, with additional explainers to help people put trust in the vote by reviewing the security of the counting system itself.
Uvalde Leader-News (TX): Providing local election information
The Uvalde Leader-News published its first election guide with information about local races, including job descriptions, area served, compensation and other information about each office.
Washington City Paper (D.C.): Offering email newsletters tailored by registration status and voting method
The Washington City Paper provided information about registration and voting deadlines and reminders to submit their ballots through a semi-automated email series, segmented by registration status and mail-in ballot status.
WDET-FM Public Radio (MI): Covering election issues most pertinent to local audiences
WDET disseminated critical voter information and addressed misinformation throughout October related to absentee ballots, drop boxes, and key political races and how they affect Metro Detroit.
WFAE Public Radio (NC): Tailoring voter guide to meet local information needs
WFAE created a voter information and engagement project that included a voter guide of national, state and local elections. The guide provided information about the roles and responsibilities of the offices on the ballot, candidate responses to questionnaires, and information about the voting process.