What is a Critical Conversation? | Printable discussion guide

Despite all the planning for it, Election Day is one of those news events that can catch newsrooms off guard. That is because planning is often designed around getting the results and reporting them, as opposed to unforeseen problems at the polls. There are, however, ways to best position yourself to handle things you don’t anticipate.

Who’s in this conversation?

This is a topic for wide inclusion — politics reporters and editors, the audience engagement team, and anyone else who will be working on Election Day, no matter their beat or job. Photo and video editors should be involved. If your newsroom has a safety and security expert, they should be included. Think broadly.

The agenda

1. When problems occur at the polls, are we prepared to put them in context?

Reporting on problems at the polls — long lines, voters being turned away, lost voter registrations, extended hours — is important, especially if misinformation is circulating or intimidation is occurring. But reporting isolated instances of such problems can also amplify them, which might deter people from voting.

Consider these actions:
  • Contact local elections officials in advance and keep their phone numbers and email addresses in a central, accessible place so that reporters can quickly report problems at the polls and put them into context.
  • Talk in advance about the perils of amplification. A journalist’s instinct is to rush to the place where there are problems, talk to people and take photos or videos. But if the issue has happened in one election site out of 1,000, it’s important to report in specific terms so the public won’t think problems are more widespread than they are.
  • Have your journalists learn as much as they can about your community’s voting procedures, equipment and technology. That way, if something goes wrong with voting machines or other equipment, they will be able to better explain it – or debunk misinformation about it.
  • Poll worker behavior could be an issue, even when they are acting correctly. Ask election officials to help you understand the instructions poll workers receive so that you can contextualize claims about their behavior. Let audiences know, too, what they can expect to see from poll workers.
  • Understand your jurisdiction’s voting laws, especially regarding provisional ballots. In the past, people have falsely claimed that they weren’t allowed to vote or that they witnessed someone else using a provisional ballot and alleged fraudulent activity when none was occurring.

2. Are we tuned into the platforms where people will be talking about their experience at the polls in their communities, including any problems (or perceived problems)?

People will use Facebook and other social platforms to talk about their experiences at the polls. Some of those conversations could lead to stories. Some will include misinformation. Some could lead to stories correcting the misinformation and instead reporting the correct information to people.

Consider these actions:
  •  Ask your social team to monitor platforms for chatter about what’s happening at the polls. These could be legitimate news tips, or misinformation that should be ignored or debunked, depending on its reach. See the Critical Election Conversation on misinformation for more.

3. Are we preparing our audiences (and ourselves) for later-than-usual results?

Election experts have urged journalists to avoid framing slower-than-usual results as a “delay.” This was especially an issue in 2020 when Covid-19 stressed the system in myriad ways.

Consider these actions:
  • If the election results are likely to come in later than usual, prepare readers well in advance and explain why. Update the story as you get closer to Election Day. Here is an example, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, from 2020.
  • Make the staff aware of why the word “delay” is problematic. Vote counting sometimes takes a while, and mail-in ballots can slow the process in some states. “Delay” could suggest problems that don’t exist.
  • Make sure your staffing schedule doesn’t assume results will be available at a certain time. A staffer who’s supposed to be done at midnight, for example, could end up working all night if there’s not a hand-off system in place.  

4. Do we have a good handle on the rules and laws involving electioneering in our state?

The areas around polling stations are sometimes quiet and orderly — and sometimes chaotic, especially in competitive races. Reporters who encounter the latter when they are out talking to voters at polling stations will benefit by doing some spadework.

Consider these actions:
  • Know your jurisdiction’s electioneering rules. Ask local officials about their plans for potential disruptions at the polls. Reporters might not necessarily report those plans to the public in advance – which could have the effect of alarming voters – but they will want to understand which officials to contact if problems arise.
  • Reporters should know the poll-watching and poll-observing rules in their counties and states so that they can quickly gauge whether any activity they see or hear about is potentially unlawful. The National Conference on State Legislatures has a rundown of state laws.

5. Do we have someone from the legal team lined up to call if our journalists run into trouble at polling stations?

If a reporter is stopped from doing their job or, worse, arrested, newsrooms should have a plan in place to protect them and their work.

Consider these actions:
  • Familiarize yourself with the legal issues reporters could face while covering the election. This guide from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is one resource. The new Knight Foundation-funded election hub plans to offer resources for news organizations to protect journalists who are threatened online or in person. 
  • Have legal counsel explain to reporters and editors what journalists should do if they are challenged, apprehended or arrested at or near polling sites. Ask the lawyers if they could provide a cheat sheet reporters could access when trouble arises.

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