To future Americans, this period in the history of democracy will no doubt be seen as chaotic and fractured. But how will journalism be seen? As catalysts to save democracy from implosion? Or as an industry that blames market forces for its struggles and whinges about the loss of newsprint and the scent of printer’s ink?

“The potential for this to be a breakthrough moment for the press is real,” said NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen said in a July webinar. But to begin to do that, he added, the media industry must “ask really tough questions about how we’re going to do our journalism differently, given the threats to democracy that we see all around the country.” 

In this section of the American Press Institute’s guide to covering elections and democracy, we’ll look at some traditional ways of covering elections, and offer advice on more effective methods that could make a difference.

The first step: Study your election reporting, planning and staffing from previous years. Journalists can be notorious savers and likely can document any anachronistic stories, poor return on investment (hours spent vs. readership), and trouble spots as well as successes. 

If you’re a newer newsroom or startup without a long history of election coverage, start here: Scrutinize how other media around you cover elections, and then determine where your opportunities are. Newer media organizations often are set up to think differently and creatively about news coverage, and should resist the temptation to slip into old journalism habits.

As you’re charting your new path, here are some ideas to turn your coverage from traditional to impactful.

Traditional: “Seasoned” political reporters and editors 

Make a difference: Add fresh voices. Don’t get trapped into staffing your election coverage only with the same team, year after year. They might be less inclined to acknowledge flaws in their coverage or consider new ideas. And they’re more likely to be white and male. In a Pew Research Center study released in June, 52 percent of journalists said their own newsrooms didn’t have enough racial and ethnic diversity.

At the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, covering elections is “an all-hands-on-deck” effort, director of digital news Rachel Piper told API. And that helps broaden diversity in the election reporting staff and in story ideas. Reporters who haven’t been mired in political reporting bring new perspectives because they can “think more like a reader,” says Piper, and come up with coverage that speaks to “someone who might not have voted before or for several years.”

If you’re only using a traditional lens to report on politics, you’re only speaking to pundits and politicians. Very quickly, your work can become ungrounded from your actual audience.

Traditional: “Horse race” reporting and other journalism habits

Make a difference: Really, truly, put your reader/listener/viewer at the center of your coverage.

A focus on “horse race” reporting — who’s up and who’s down in the polls or fundraising — is ineffective because it “views political battles not as issues of democracy, law, order, or the well-being of humans, but as races that need to be won,” writes Lyz Lenz, a politics and culture writer and former columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  “Every bit of news suddenly becomes about how it will affect candidates while the rest of humanity sits on the sidelines and loses.”

And it can quash new voices, because it typically excludes any real discussion of issues. That hurts female candidates who often campaign on those voter-centered issues, according to Cal State political scientist Meredith Conroy.  

Horse-race reporting is a hallmark of national political coverage, and for many reasons local and regional reporters should avoid emulating it. Here are a few, says Denise Marie-Ordway in The Journalist’s Resource: 

  • Distrust of politicians
  • Distrust of news outlets
  • An uninformed and confused electorate
  • Inaccurate reporting of opinion poll data

“If you’re only using a traditional lens to report on politics, you’re only speaking to pundits and politicians,” Jaisal Noor, democracy initiative manager for Solutions Journalism Network, told API. “Very quickly, your work can become ungrounded from your actual audience.”  

The Chatham News + Record is letting readers know what the newsroom will cover in the elections, and what it won’t: No fundraisers, no partisan events, no endorsements. 

That kind of focus also is part of the mission statement at Spotlight PA, a statewide collaborative newsroom in Pennsylvania. “Decisions made on the state and local level have a far larger impact on people’s lives than those made in Washington, D.C.,” executive director and editor-in-chief Christopher Baxter wrote for Nieman Reports. Spotlight PA’s most-read election coverage this year has included “guides, explainers, election integrity, election education,” Baxter told API. “There is an awareness now of how much people want that.”

Bonnie Newman Davis, managing editor at the Richmond Free Press, an independent publication aimed at the Black community in Richmond, Va., told API nothing is more important than making sure people get educated about elections. “It’s up to us,” says Davis. “People are so hungry for basic information” on voting laws, recount rules, duties of election workers, even what federal judges do and how they impact everyday lives. 

Due to the “shrunken” state of mainstream local media, Davis says, readers are counting on community-focused publications like the Free Press for help. “That’s daunting for a small operation like mine,” says Davis, whose newsroom has five full-time employees.

Traditional: Competing for “scoops” with other local, regional and national news organizations.*

Make a difference: See other news organizations as potential collaborators rather than “the competition.” 

This can be difficult for journalists who’ve savored news rivalry for their entire careers. But today, nearly every local news organization has staffing or knowledge deficits, and collaborations can help fill those gaps.  

“We can’t afford as an industry to be duplicating efforts,” says Baxter, whose Spotlight PA newsroom now has 92 partner organizations. “Those notions of competition — if you’re still holding on to those, frankly, I think that’s going to be your demise.” 

For example, if you’ve got a staff with no Spanish speakers or a newsroom with no video or podcasting abilities, can you fill those gaps by creating a mutually beneficial partnership with another regional news organization? 

Media organizations in The Granite State News Collaborative in New Hampshire in 2020 worked together to produce a voter guide in Spanish and English and other content. Media writer Mark Glaser says the project was a highlight in a year that will “go down as the U.S. election with the most cooperation ever among local news outlets.” 

“What really stands out is how competing news organizations were able to come together to cover the election in the state of New Hampshire,” says Glaser. The collaborative initially was launched to cover COVID-19 and has jointly covered state politics and other issues this year.

Boston media have long been competitive, says Pam Johnston, general manager of GBH News. “But what we are learning is there are some tremendously valuable, smaller editorial outlets all around Boston and New England and they know their audience, their audiences engage,” Johnston told API. 

The public radio station now seeks out partnerships with media including with Boston Black News. “We’re better together,” says Johnston. “We learn from each other’s audiences.”

Traditional: Politics reporters and editors have a meeting with themselves and decide which issues and races to cover. 

Make a difference: Involve the community in your planning. 

All your thoughtful election planning and coverage is wasted if no one’s buying what you’re selling (literally or figuratively). What does your community actually want and need to know about the election process, candidates or issues? 

Those questions can’t be answered by journalists sitting in a stuffy meeting room or on a Zoom call. But residents of all backgrounds — old, new, active, quiet, wealthy, struggling, voters and non-voters — can help with the answers. And, as a bonus, they’ll be more engaged in your coverage because they provided input. 

Richland Source, an independent digital news organization in North Central Ohio, held a series of community meetings called “Talk the Vote” last year. Brittany Schock, the newsroom’s engagement and solutions editor, and other staff members listened for hours as residents detailed the local issues that were — and were not — important to them.

It made her realize that long-held assumptions made by journalists about “important issues” were off-base.

“When you’re in news, you feel like you’re seeing all the issues at once and you have to care about all the issues at once and report on them. That can make it feel like the world is very big,” Schock told API. 

“What surprised me is that the world is very small for a lot of people.” 

Community residents typically focused on just one or two issues that were intensely important to them; for instance, problems with noisy trash pickup and laws regulating chickens in backyards.

“It’s humbling to me that this matters so much, that this is so important to this person’s life. It carries the same weight to them,” says Schock, as housing shortages and downtown improvement carry for the journalism community.

Later in this report, we’ll talk about more ways news organizations have included their communities. But here’s a good starting point: Write a mission statement to help guide your election coverage and hold you accountable for it. 

Those mission statements “should include specifics about how you select which stories to cover and what you invest your resources in,” says Lynn Walsh of Along with Solutions Journalism Network and Hearken, Trusting News worked with journalists to help them cover elections differently through the Democracy SOS program.

WyoFile, a Wyoming non-profit news organization, created a mission statement with a list of specific actions:

Traditional: Your &!*@^#$! voter guide. 

Make a difference: Make it better by focusing on basic needs.

Anyone who’s worked on a newsroom voter guide knows that it can be frustrating, labor-intensive and time-consuming. Candidates won’t respond to your pleas for biographies and photos. Their answers to your candidate questionnaires clearly need to be fact-checked. The software is glitchy, your publishing system doesn’t like it, and the boss keeps adding elements. Publishing a voter guide may never be easy, but there are ways to make it more manageable and valuable. 

A tip from those who’ve persevered: Forget trying to track down candidates who won’t respond to you, and focus on voter knowledge instead. 

During the primary season, KPCC/LAist decided to prioritize its voter guides over incremental daily election coverage. Their research showed the audience was most interested in information about smaller local races “they couldn’t get anywhere else” like city assessor and judgeship candidates, Brianna Lee, the engagement producer for civics and democracy coverage, told API. Their research showed the audience was most interested in information about smaller local races “they couldn’t get anywhere else” like city assessor and judgeship candidates, Lee says.

They also made the guides voter-centric. “You’re centering voters, not politicians,” says Lee, when you’re explaining the purpose and history of the office, rather than chasing down politicians to get their prepared statements. The election team also wrote candidate biographies based on publicly available information, and linked to trusted sites for more information. 

“If you help people understand the job,” Ariel Zirulnick, senior editor for community engagement at KPCC and LAist, told API, “it helps them understand how to read the candidates’ platforms” on political websites and in campaign literature.

The guides produced record-setting metrics, says Zirulnick, in readers’ engaged minutes and recirculation. Page views for the guide exceeded a million. For the state’s upcoming general election, the voter guide will include an overview of how ballot measures, or propositions, work and a detailed breakdown of all seven measures on the November ballot. The staff also will publish a “pop-up” newsletter explaining the five most confusing items on the ballot. 

“Context is the thing that people want the most,” says Zirulnick.

Spotlight PA’s successful voter guide also de-emphasized candidates’ contributions, says Baxter. “Candidates have their own mechanisms and pathways to get their messaging out,” Baxter told API. The news media’s role isn’t strictly “connecting the people with the messaging of the candidates, which is sort of a legacy way of thinking.” 

Rethinking the elements of your voter guides and their efficiency can leave time for other initiatives. For the fall election, all of Spotlight PA’s guides will be translated into Spanish, Baxter said.The Philadelphia Inquirer also has translated its guide into five languages.  

Sample ballots are a great help to new voters or those who haven’t voted for years. Scalawag and Carolina Public Press were among the newsrooms that used a WordPress Election Kit to create a sample ballot project for readers. Funding came from the American Press Institute’s Trusted Elections Network and Hearken’s Election SOS.

*A related suggestion: To avoid adding fuel to anti-media sentiment, journalists might reconsider their use of the retro term “scoop” on Twitter and other public platforms. Journalism isn’t a sport and celebrating in the end zone may not be a good look. 

Up next: Repairing relationships with people in your communities, and how to talk with all of them.

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