Elections in recent years have been marred by false and misleading claims of fraud. Anticipating an acceleration of the trend, editors and news directors from local newsrooms began reaching out to the American Press Institute in early 2020 for support addressing the issue. The onset of the pandemic and a corollary shift in election practices across the country introduced additional complexity and confusion.
With support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, we launched the Trusted Elections Network (TEN) to connect newsroom leaders and experts on elections and misinformation to consider the best ways to address false claims and other threats to secure, trusted elections in service of informed voters.
In navigating an unprecedented year, we learned a lot about the needs of resource-limited journalists working to confront complexity and how organizations like ours can best help them. Here are four practices we identified during this tumultuous year to support the work of local journalists.
I.) Journalists benefit from connection and collaboration.
The pandemic limited opportunities for exchange among journalists, especially newsroom interactions and press conferences or campaign events.
API’s election network — 173 journalists representing 113 newsrooms in 31 states at its peak — worked to offer new opportunities for connection among journalists in the midst of the pandemic. In addition to an email listserv that allowed members to share information, reporting and questions, we also hosted 12 conversations among journalists and others to help reporters learn about election issues and ask questions of experts, see how other journalists were approaching their coverage, and build new skills to enhance their reporting.
We zeroed in on challenges that defined the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania spring primaries and how journalists there covered them; how reporters can understand and respond to the unique information needs of various voters; skills reporters can use for reporting on digital disinformation; and how reporters can better understand and report on the uncertainty involving election laws and procedures.
The feedback we received emphasized the importance of insight from journalists covering primaries during the pandemic in helping other newsrooms plan their coverage and focus limited reporting resources early on the topics that later came to define the November election.
II.) Journalists need a sense of what their audiences really want, and sometimes — especially in times of chaos — it’s the basics.
Journalists often aspire to the analytical or explanatory take. This temptation is more pronounced in times of chaos because of the journalistic impulse to help audiences make sense of complex issues and events. And that’s important work. But one thing 2020 taught us is that in times of chaos, audiences need the basics. In the case of an election, it’s where and how to register and vote, especially understanding less familiar processes like mail voting.
Elections held during the early weeks and months of the pandemic provided a focus for reporters: partisan disagreements and public confusion about the rules governing voting and election administration, struggles with implementing changes to election administration and managing increases in existing methods (as with mail voting), the disproportionate difficulties of voting among communities of color and young voters, and the confluence of COVID-19 misinformation, election misinformation, and overall uncertainty among both voters and officials.
We emphasized the importance of the basics — that journalists and journalism need to help audiences understand how to vote in their community, build confidence in the election process by highlighting the systems in place and the election workers who run them, and avoid frames that unnecessarily amplify false information.
III.) A variety of experts who can be at the ready when problems arise — and help journalists anticipate them — is essential.
The pace and nature of the change in 2020 raised new questions about election administration, election law, public health and much else. Facilitating thoughtful exchange among journalists and subject-matter experts — through an email listserv, thematic events and directories — was critical in helping journalists quickly grasp election issues and their broader contexts.
Election experts were well positioned to help alert journalists to potential issues (and non-issues) before they became serious challenges for the public, including challenges prompted by increased mail voting and recruitment of poll workers and disproportionate difficulties voting for some groups. Our network of more than 100 experts, complemented by the expert directory built by ElectionSOS, helped build connections between journalists and experts early in the cycle.
IV.) Newsrooms need the leeway, through dedicated funding, to try new things.
Experimentation can seem like a luxury in times of constrained budgets and limited reporting capacity. In the midst of a pandemic and mass public protests, newsrooms were forced to make difficult choices.
To ease this pressure and help newsrooms implement ideas prompted by connections in the network, we offered $221,000 in small grants (between $2,000 and $10,000) to 36 newsrooms in 21 states, thanks to funding from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, ElectionSOS and the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation.
This funding helped newsrooms hire additional reporters, produce content in new formats and across multiple platforms, and better listen to, engage, and support their audiences and communities. We’ve highlighted the grant projects and lessons journalists learned through those efforts here.
The innovative spirit of local journalists is the blueprint for future reporting. In a challenging year, journalists continued to pursue ways to better serve their audiences and communities. Here are five (of many) quality examples from Trusted Elections Network members to inspire future coverage of elections and government:
- The Philadelphia Inquirer provided its in-depth but accessible voting FAQs in the five most common languages in the Philadelphia area.
- Enlace Latino NC’s “Tu Voto es Poder” pursued multiple approaches to serve the information needs of its audiences, and its graphics featuring basic information about voting were both accessible and shareable.
- The Mississippi Free Press’s data-driven election reporting highlighted key issues for voters in Mississippi, which the news organization supplemented with conversations to discuss possible solutions to voting-related challenges in the state.
- The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel emphasized basic information about voting, including this piece helping voters cast an absentee ballot.
- Election Kit, developed by Fernando Diaz and Will English IV with Newspack, helped more than a dozen newsrooms include customizable sample ballot lookups as part of their election coverage. Some examples of the tool in use: Carolina Public Press, Washington City Paper, Scalawag and Mountain State Spotlight.
Organizations like ours need to continue to build from these lessons to support quality journalism about elections, governance, and democracy after the heat of a contentious election dissipates. Legacy media continues to struggle to build the trust of and better serve the interests and information needs of communities of color and others. Trust in journalism, especially among conservatives, remains low. Hyperpolarization and the allure of misinformation undermine accountable governance and an effective civil society. We’ll continue to work with journalists to promote reporting that centers communities as the fount of accountability and the driving force behind a vibrant democracy.
We’re keen to take these and other lessons forward to help expand a journalistic discipline that functions as an essential service to the American public.