Are you “fit for purpose”?
If you’ve read the “Elements of Journalism,” you know one of its basic tenets: The purpose of journalism is to make sure people have the information they need “to make the best possible decisions” about actions that impact their lives.
Being fit for purpose — a term more often used in industries outside media — requires designing a process and then maintaining quality through constant testing, training and learning. Even if you’ve covered elections for years, you still need to update your knowledge in an ever-changing political society.
“It’s a different day now,” Jaisal Noor, democracy initiative manager for Solutions Journalism Network, told API. “It’s time to throw out the old rulebook. We’re living in a different reality than we did just a few years ago.”
Lee Hill, the executive editor of GBH News in Boston, has called this year “the year of training” for his staff. “We’ve had our reporters in bootcamp since February, every kind of training you can imagine,” Hill told API. He wants to do additional “cultural responsiveness” training to help his journalists build trust with underrepresented communities.
Do you have the current skills, knowledge and training to be “fit for purpose” during this election season? Here are some questions to assess your readiness.
Can you effectively use fact-checking and debunking in your coverage?
Fact-checking has become an essential part of some local newsrooms’ election coverage. If your newsroom has fallen behind, here’s a reason to step it up: More misinformation has been shared so far in 2022 than in 2020, according to a study released in August by two New York University researchers.
Even for seasoned fact-checkers, it’s tough to keep up with new methods of spreading misinformation. At the same time, better ways for journalists to write and deliver facts are evolving.
For instance, journalists also should practice “prebunking” — anticipating illogical beliefs and proactively addressing them in coverage, according to a study from a group of top European and U.S. media researchers.
Journalists can use “inoculation” in their coverage by shooting down misinformation before it goes viral. “The idea of inoculating people against false or misleading information is simple,” explains First Draft News. “If you show people examples of misinformation, they will be better equipped to spot it and question it.”
This is good content for your voter guide, as KPCC/LAist learned. They began by asking readers to send in their questions about voting and elections.
“We received more than 120 questions, several of which led to stories to address points of confusion or common misconceptions,” writes Brianna Lee, engagement producer for civics and democracy coverage at KPCC and LAist.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided to produce more election explainers and how-to stories on voting, in part because of what director of digital news Rachel Piper called “other forces at work” spreading misinformation in the community. “We knew we needed to be out front and correct the narrative,” Piper told API.
Are you familiar with social media platforms beyond Facebook? Do you have a plan to keep up with the conversations and misinformation on Nextdoor, TikTok, Snapchat, Reddit, TruthSocial, Parler, Twitch and others?
About a third or more of readers under 40 get news each day from YouTube and Instagram, and about a quarter or more from TikTok, Snapchat and Twitter, according to a poll released in August by Media Insight Project, a collaboration between The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute.
The poll also found that younger readers under 40 blame social media companies, politicians and journalists equally for the spread of misinformation. More than half the respondents also said “media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors” are a major problem.
That might indicate that not only do journalists need to be cautious about repeating or sharing misinformation, but also need to explain why and how they use the platforms.
The Knight Center at the University of Texas is offering a free, self-paced course that will open with a look at “how the Internet, social media, as well as Artificial Intelligence (AI), affect electoral processes.” The course is available in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.
Do you know what you need to know about election laws in your state, voting deadlines and campaign finance reports?
These topics can be ever-changing and confounding, and journalists need to stay informed. Fortunately, several organizations offer training and resources on these issues. The North Carolina Local News Workshop offered campaign finance training for journalists this year (and is sharing video and handouts from the event), and the Society of Professional Journalists has training on issues including disability rights at the polls and other voting topics.
Do you know your rights at polling places?
In 2020, reporters had trouble covering polling places, and access during upcoming elections are expected to get worse. Rules for journalists can vary by state and even locality, so it’s imperative to know what to expect and how to handle it.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explains access and other issues in their legal guide. And there’s more detail for reporters who live in these swing states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Politifact also published a summary of polling-place issues and solutions for journalists this year.
Paying for it
The cost of holding events, paying travel expenses, finding training and even filing FOIA requests can add up quickly. But with some research and creativity, news organizations can find funding for election coverage.
Your first stop might be your local or regional community foundations, which have shown an increased interest in funding journalism projects related to democracy, governance and education. Hundreds of community foundations across the country have launched efforts to financially help local media cover governance and democracy. Media in Color, the California Press Foundation and the League of California Community Foundations also have launched a beginner’s guide to foundation funding. (Disclosure: The guide was co-produced by the author of this report.)
- The American Press Institute’s small grants initiative is designed to “help newsrooms improve and deepen their relationships with their communities in this year’s elections,” says CEO and executive director Michael Bolden.
- The Fund for Investigative Journalism is offering Emergency Grants for Threats to Democracy.
- NewsFuel’s journalism grants directory is continuously updated with funding and other support for journalism projects. Search for election-related keywords.
- The Pulitzer Center is offering grants for “enterprise stories that focus on threats to democratic institutions in the United States.”
- Lenfest Institute has advice and workshops to help with journalism funding.
- The International Women’s Media Foundation offers emergency funding for “U.S. journalists in need so they can resume work essential to our functioning democracy.”
- The Election SOS Rapid Response Fund distributed just over $200,000 in 38 grants to newsrooms and freelancers around the country in 2020.
In Mississippi, the Black Voters Fund underwrote the Mississippi Free Press voter guide. Marquette University is supporting the salary of a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel political reporter who is a fellow at the school’s Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education.
A Democracy SOS grant also allowed the Sentinel to hire two democracy reporters; one wrote election guides and one tracked political misinformation online. Democracy SOS involves 21 newsrooms, who have received a total of $100,000 this year, and “is aimed at long-term change in how news organizations cover politics, civic life and elections,” Linda Shaw, editorial director for the Solutions Journalism Network, told API.
The Richland Source in Ohio spent an estimated $1,000 on hosting community events last year, with the help of a Renewing Democracy Grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. Solutions Journalism is a nonprofit organization that promotes and teaches reporting on promising responses to social problems.
But even community events can cost very little, says Brittany Schock, a Richland Source editor. Organizations may provide free meeting space, residents may open their homes for small meetings, and catering isn’t really essential. “We provided food as a little experiment, and I realized that maybe that’s not very important,” Schock told API. “Next year we can save money by not doing that.”
At KPCC and LAist, a grant helps support the organizations’ new Civics and Democracy Beat. And there are other ways to offset costs, Ariel Zirulnick, senior editor for community engagement, told API. For example, they created reusable templates for their labor-intensive voter guides. And their popular primary-election quiz, Meet your Mayor, is being reused for the November voter guide, focused on the two remaining candidates. (The concept of the quiz and the code came from nonprofit newsroom THE CITY. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.)
Some journalists in North Carolina received stipends to attend an election training workshop, a necessary step in attracting a diverse group of journalists from around the state. The variety of backgrounds — journalists who had never covered elections, reporters from the Cherokee community and from struggling towns in eastern and western North Carolina — proved to be a highlight of the workshop.
“They shared a lot of great insight and perspective about covering communities of color and communities in rural areas that are struggling with issues like access to high-speed broadband.,” Shannan Bowen, executive director of the NC Local News Workshop, told API.
“We must equip journalists in these areas with the tools and training they need to provide this essential service to these communities, or we’re not at all effective.”
The American Press Institute will continue to report on democracy-centered journalism and political coverage throughout the election cycle, especially during the next two years as we head toward the consequential presidential election of 2024. We want to hear from you about your projects, successes, and your efforts toward improvement.