Midterm elections are coming up, and it’s vital for newsrooms to prepare. During the 2022 ONA conference in Los Angeles, API’s CEO and Executive Director Michael D. Bolden, Hearken’s CEO Jennifer Brandel and Lenfest Institute for Journalism’s Head of National Programs Amy Kovac-Ashley shared best practices, case studies and resources to help journalism organizations engage voters and provide resources needed for their audiences to cast informed ballots in the upcoming elections. Here are the 24 practical and actionable lessons for the 2022 elections they shared. You can check out the full deck here and a live Twitter thread here.
1: Explain what you WILL and WON’T cover, HOW & WHY
It’s important to provide a clear mission statement that you can continue referring to in your election coverage to promote trust with your audiences. A great mission statement includes the reasons you do what you do, information on reporters who are covering elections with ways to reach them, the way you conduct your work, and information on where to find and stay up to date with your election coverage. You can check out this great statement from WyoFile and find even more useful examples from Trusting News.
Don’t stop after you write your mission statement, make sure you continue communicating your process to your audience. See how Richland Source used a sidebar to share their plan to interview major candidates. They explained their goal to go beyond “horse race” stories and complicate the narrative, using questions developed by Amanda Ripley.
2: Ask the public what info they need & respond
Consider using the Citizens Agenda model to center your coverage on the electorate and invite them to tell you what they want politicians to be talking about as they compete for votes. If you are looking for more examples of community listening projects, API recently announced the Election Coverage & Community Listening fund recipients and their plans for the fall. For example, The Missoulian/Lee Montana Newspapers is going to visit every American Indian reservation to hear what they want to see in election coverage.
3: Get to know your local election officials and poll workers
How can your newsroom cover contested votes? Who are the people administering your local elections? Build those relationships, and understand what they’re up against and how voting operations happen.
“If you take one thing from this presentation, watch this video from the NYT with your staff as soon as you get back. Election deniers are learning the ways the polls work in order to manufacture doubt in the election results. This is a serious, serious threat. Make a plan with your newsroom about what to do if votes are contested.” – Jennifer Brandel
4: Explain democracy: How it works, threats, solutions
The inspiration for this lesson comes from Democracy Day, a grassroots movement that shines a light on the stakes of U.S. democracy. Here are some ways your newsroom can better explain democracy: make government processes easier to understand, explain pathways to power, give historical context, humanize election workers, center voters in your stories and provide local context to national issues. If your newsroom hasn’t been focusing on democracy, there are fabulous stories for you to republish.
5: Don’t just focus on a candidate’s party
It’s hard for the public to hear the signal through the noise of political party shorthand, so look for ways to complicate the narrative. One way to do it is to make it easy and clear to see which candidates are advocating for positions that will weaken or harden democratic norms and institutions.
6: Preview what to expect
It might not be clear who won and who didn’t, but that doesn’t mean there’s malfeasance. To get ahead of bad actors sowing doubt in the election, inoculate audiences against misinformation before they even see it. Explain to them what to expect ahead of time, you can use these videos to help you.
7: Mind your language
Avoid using “us vs. them” or two-side, binary framing. Instead, use mindful language to complicate the narrative. Consider revealing more viewpoints interviewing people who are not dead set on one approach. Try not to shorthand people into factional identities and avoid zero-sum thinking, a belief that only one side can win if another loses. Learn more about complicating the narrative from Amanda Ripley and Solutions Journalism Network.
8: Scenario plan with your staff
Harassment disproportionately affects Black journalists, journalists of color, LGBTQ, and other minorities. Make sure people are comfortable and safe in covering the elections — and offer that support to freelancers, too. Talk to staff about whether they should identify themselves as press, as that’s not always advisable. Download the Election SOS Scenario Planning Guide for more resources.
9: Scenario-planning with your community
Generate a list of community organizations that work on cultivating connection, strengthening community ties, and doing work to heal from traumatic situations. Figure out who can be partners if threats or violence arise in your community and consider working on joint messaging and resources if traumatic situations ensue. Check out the TRUST Network to find these in your community.
10: Seek partnerships
11: Make content easy to find
You’re doing great work, so make sure your audience can see it. Think now and do things early. Communicate across your organization about SEO, use Google Trends to see what your content should cover, and use historical data to see when different search terms were popping up to help identify key topics that may resurface this election. Remember SEO is a team sport, it’s not just the job of the digital staff or politics team to get your content in front of people. You can also create evergreen content you can keep adding to, such as explainers across a variety of platforms. But remember to think beyond the pixels. How else can you get important information in front of people? Partnerships with libraries and other public spaces can help you reach people.
12: Keep your content updated
If you did your explainers months ago, people aren’t going to keep seeing it unless you recirculate your content and be in the conversation both on social and on your own site. Create elections landing page that includes core up-to-date information and links to all coverage. See the example from WITF for inspiration.
13: Voter guides
We have to think about voter guides in a new way. It’s not your grandmother’s voter guide, but it does have to be something she can access. Think about who the guides are for and center them on people instead of candidates. Include the basics and make the guides approachable.
14: User-test your products
15: Localize the national
If you’ve got a high-profile race, serve your community first, but think about whether there are other audiences who may be interested in your local expertise. Figure out your strategy for explaining your community to the nation.
On Election Day
16: Who is anchoring, and what messages does that send?
Typically pundits and political insiders speak with journalists about what the races look like. That reinforces the idea that politics is for insiders. Ask yourself if you are featuring members of community groups and people from diverse backgrounds and age groups?
17: Offer practical info
Use your voter guides to resurface practical information on your sites and social. It may seem redundant to you, but to your community, it’s helpful, especially things like live updates from polling places, voting line estimators, getting a ride to vote, and more. If there are changes in the rules, get that information out as soon as possible.
18: Say what you know — and don’t
State clearly what you know, the source, and what questions you still have, or if your audience has questions. This is easier in broadcast but is necessary on other platforms too.
19: Help people catch up. Not everyone is glued to the news
It’s important to note that you are not your audience. What do you need to do to serve the people most affected by the policies and people up for election? Large numbers of people don’t vote but may still want to know what happens, so make it easy for them to figure it out. Using an “In case you missed it” section can help with this.
20: Dealing with ambiguity
The public looks to journalists to provide clear, contextual truth. Debunk misinformation, explain what is happening and why, and keep explainers evergreen. Counter misinformation and provide fact checks.
21: Provide context
Elections aren’t a game but can become one if you’re not careful. Understand how information gaps might affect your audience in different ways, and the resources you need to deploy to make sure people have the information they need.
22: Do a retrospective while it’s fresh
Process what went well and what didn’t. Are you listening to feedback? How flexible is your coverage? Are you informing future work with what you’re saying?
23: Now that they’re elected, track what politicians do in office
There are many resources to help you make sure you’re holding people accountable for what they’re doing. Read API’s report on election preparation for more ideas and resources for following up on campaign promises.
24: Train for the marathon
This work is hard. You’re tired and you’ve been covering big stories for years. Take the stress of the election cycle seriously by building in recovery periods for your team and yourself. It doesn’t benefit anyone if people are too exhausted to work. Make sure everyone in the newsroom is on board with this, and don’t forget to set up boundaries for yourself.
Here are some useful resources for you and your team: