Trusted Elections Network Guide to Covering Elections and Misinformation

A poll worker in Wisconsin.
Photo: Coburn Dukehart, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

It can be daunting to determine where to start when addressing false information or covering an increasingly complicated election. In this short guide, we’ve included tools, research, and other resources to help journalists and others working to better inform and serve Americans this election cycle. The resources here, gathered from experts in in the Trusted Elections Network, are organized around common questions and challenges. 

We will continue to update the information and resources below, especially as new information becomes available. If you’d like to suggest a question or resource we should feature, please let us know. For more, check out recent updates from the network.

How can we cover elections in a pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic has further complicated what was set this year to be a contentious, confusing election.

Getting started

  1. This year the process and mechanics of voting will be especially relevant. Start your coverage early. Decisions about electoral processes are usually made well before Election Day but this year they could change on short notice, due to rapidly shifting information and guidance about safe distancing. Understanding how the system is supposed to work will also help journalists quickly grasp the issues introduced in inevitable court fights over the process. The Brennan Center has a helpful state-by-state breakdown of relevant in-person and mail voting policies.
  2. Emphasize what you know repeatedly. Voters will plug into the process at different times. Your job is to meet them where they are. Also be clear about what is uncertain or may change in the coming days, weeks and months. Since your audiences may have different levels of familiarity, it’s critical to provide up to date information about the voting process so all of your community can participate. Make key facts easy to find at any time, without users’ having to dig through old stories. That will help you been seen as a reliable, consistent resource.
  3. Connect with election administrators. These officials can offer insight into what’s working and what’s not. ProPublica has created a list of questions to ask your local officials.
  4. Emphasize that, in many cases, election results may not be reported on Election Night, as an increased volume of absentee and mail voting will likely require counting and verification in the days and weeks following the end of voting.

Explain the current state of election administration policies in your jurisdiction

Policies surrounding the administration of elections are changing rapidly in response to the coronavirus pandemic and litigation. Provide your audiences with an understanding of the policies currently in effect in your state or jurisdiction. 

Track the ways election policy might change in your state

Ongoing litigation, regular legislation and coronavirus-specific adaptations will change the electoral policy landscape in your state before November. 

Consider solutions and explanatory pieces about election administration

The policies states set (and don’t set) will have significant implications for elections this year. With your community’s specific context in mind, consider reporting about policies or processes that are working well (or poorly) in other states that might be adapted locally. ProPublica’s Electionland is a good place to look for possible story ideas. 

Talk to election officials

Election officials, especially at the local level, can serve as an early indicator for a jurisdiction’s preparedness to manage upcoming elections. For Pennsylvania’s June primary, election officials raised concerns weeks before the election about state guidance around polling consolidations and protective equipment for poll workers.

  • Jessica Huseman and Rachel Glickhouse at ProPublica wrote an excellent guide for issues to pay attention to, questions to ask and records to request when connecting with officials.
  • Wisconsin reporters covering the state’s April 7 election discussed benefits and strategies for connecting with election officials.

Be realistic about the potential problems and uncertainty around election administration

  • Many states, especially those slow to adopt voting by mail policies, may struggle to expand mail voting as a result of limited resources, inexperience and lack of training, legislative gridlock and supply chain considerations. According to the Brennan Center, in 2018, 27 states saw less than 10% of turnout from returned mail ballots, Wisconsin (6%), Pennsylvania (4%), and North Carolina (3%) among them. States with less experience managing large volumes of mail voting will face significant challenges ratcheting up mail voting capacity. As issues with the absentee system in Wisconsin’s April election suggest, expanding mail voting quickly can strain electoral systems and disenfranchise voters.
  • Various policies may have disparate impact on different portions of the electorate. For example, research suggests that voters of color wait in disproportionately long lines to vote. In Florida, researchers found that mail ballots from young voters, voters needing assistance, racial or ethnic minorities, and overseas voters were more likely to be rejected, with significant variation in rejection rates across jurisdictions.

Explain each step of the voting process

Experiences in elections earlier this year – in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere – suggest that voters are struggling to keep pace with the rapid changes the coronavirus pandemic has prompted. Help prospective voters navigate every step of the process with clear, consistent information. Explain:

  • When and how your audiences can register to vote, including what information and documents they need.
  • The process of requesting an absentee ballot, if applicable, including the conditions voters need to meet to be eligible to vote absentee and the information or documentation voters need to provide.
  • How to complete a ballot, particularly absentee ballots, including the necessary signature and witness requirements if applicable.
  • When and how to return an absentee ballot, including postage requirements, drop-off locations, and who can and can’t return a ballot on behalf of another voter.
  • When and how to vote in-person, including polling locations, required documentation, and social distancing guidance as appropriate.

Below are examples from local news outlets about how to communicate this information effectively.

Describe the process of verifying and counting ballots

Explain  the process election officials take after the election, including audits, ballot processing, and counting of all ballots. Address the myth that all ballots are only counted for “close” races and make clear that all eligible votes are counted as part of the official canvass, even when highly visible races aren’t close.

Prepare your audience to wait on election results

Anticipated nationwide increases in mail voting will likely disrupt traditional Election Night reporting of returns. A group of experts from academia and civic organizations created a set of recommendations to inform reporting on election returns:

  • Prepare to report the results as “too early to call;” emphasize the need for a careful count rather than reporting that the timeline reflects an institutional failure.
  • Explain more votes will be counted after all precincts report due to mail ballot.
  • Report estimates of expected votes outstanding or other information besides percentage of precincts reported (but beware of changes in those estimates, which may confuse people and create fears of fraud).
  • Explain why shifts in vote margins are routine as counts of mail ballots are conducted and not indicative of fraud.
  • Avoid putting isolated events and unverified claims into live coverage (especially TV) but be prepared to debunk viral misinformation if it reaches large audiences or is amplified by national politicians or political figures.
  • Forecasts and exit poll projections are frequently incorrect; avoid emphasizing them for fear of affecting turnout or causing unfounded suspicions of fraud if they miss the mark.
  • Have election procedure experts on call to help inform reporters and editors.

Here’s a story from Jonathan Lai of the Philadelphia Inquirer that highlights the counting process with mail ballots in Pennsylvania and explains why an accurate count won’t likely be done on Election Day.

Where else to look for information about elections?

  • The Stanford-MIT Project on a Healthy Election highlights research, expert contacts, and other information about conducting elections in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • ProPublica’s Electionland is a coalition of newsrooms around the country that are covering misinformation, cybersecurity, and problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Journalists can sign up to participate in the Electionland reporting collaborative here.
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks election and campaign issues in four major categories for all 50 states: campaign finance, election laws, technology and procedures, election results and analysis, and initiative and referendum. 
  • The progressive-leaning Brennan Center offers analysis and resources related to election security and policy.
  • The Center for Election Innovation and Research has expertise in voter lists and registration and election infrastructure security. The Center’s Executive Director, David Becker, previously directed the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts and spearheaded development of the Electronic Registration Information Center.

How to get started covering misinformation?

There’s a lot of social science research and journalistic practice that offers guidelines, if not definitive best practices, for covering misinformation. We’ll dig into coverage guidance in detail, but here are the basics you should start with if you’re new to the misinformation beat.

  1. Misinformation thrives when clear, accurate information about a topic or a question is absent. Understand what your audience is curious or concerned about and provide reporting that responds directly to those questions.
  2. The aim of many bad actors spreading disinformation is to get traditional media to address the false claim(s). Be wary of repeating misinformation if its spread is limited.
  3. When responding to a false claim, always lead with, and emphasize, what’s true.

What is misinformation vs. disinformation?

Typically, misinformation refers to information whose inaccuracy is unintentional, while disinformation refers to information that is deliberately false or misleading. In this guide, we’ll use the term misinformation broadly to reference both. For more on how to characterize different kinds of false information more specifically, we recommend Data & Society’s Lexicon of Lies and First Draft’s Definitional Toolbox.

How can we identify potential misinformation issues?

Experts note that, if you go looking for misinformation, you’re likely to find it. See our guidance on “When should we respond to misinformation” for more about when to address misinformation and when to avoid amplifying it unnecessarily.

But if you do want to identify or monitor misinformation issues, especially in your community, we’ve outlined a few methods below.

First, understand where misinformation comes from.

Misinformation often works to fill gaps in understanding, exploit uncertainty, or affirm preconceptions and prejudices. By “answering” our questions or validating our beliefs, misinformation is both enticing and persistent.

Online, misinformation often exploits data voids. Data voids happen when there is old, little or no legitimate information about a topic or search term. When individuals query search engines or social platforms using that topic or term, few results get returned. Manipulators often create content highlighting those terms to push ideological, economic or political agendas, spreading misinformation in the process. Data voids become particularly harmful when searches for those specific terms increase, as in the case of a breaking news event. Though data voids are difficult to detect, misinformation often spreads by exploiting these gaps in content. 

Security researchers danah boyd and Michael Golebiewski identify five types of data voids in their report Data Voids: Where Missing Data Can Easily Be Exploited

  1. Breaking News (as in connecting the little-searched term “Sutherland Springs” with antifa)
  2. Strategic new terms (as in the phrase “crisis actors”)
  3. Outdated terms, where little new legitimate content is being created (as in the phrase “social justice”)
  4. Fragmented concepts (where subtle differences in search terms can generate entirely different sets of results)
  5. Problematic queries (as in “Did the Holocaust happen?”)  

And though misinformation may spread more rapidly online, falsehoods persist off the public web. It’s worthwhile to explore what questions and issues your audiences are curious or concerned about in closed online groups, like Nextdoor, messaging apps like WhatsApp, and in community gatherings or groups entirely offline. 

Explore search and coverage trends for topics where misinformation may persist.

Google Search Trends shows common terms users search on Google. You can target trends by geography, time period, and most usefully for recent data, topic. These trends reveal the information people are searching for now (or in the recent past). You can target reporting to address these queries, thereby displacing false or misleading information. 

Muckrack Trends is similar in concept to Google Trends except it focuses on trends in news coverage. It doesn’t allow you to target your search to a specific geography, but it does allow you to narrow your search to specific time periods. It also provides additional context about a topic you might be interested in, like the total number of articles and the top authors on a topic. This tool is a good one to use in concert with Google Trends to identify whether growing trends are seeing a commensurate response in news coverage or not.

Explore trends on social media to see what new misinformation issues are emerging.

Trending hashtags can highlight what people are interested in and talking about. These hashtags, and the positions of influential people using those hashtags, can influence individuals even if they aren’t active on social media platforms as information percolates through the broader communication ecosystem. Aimee Rinehart of First Draft suggests journalists go deeper than reporting on the hashtags themselves, but on stories implied by the hashtags that reflect the concerns, needs and curiosities of your audiences.

Searching with boolean queries can help you find more specific results on most social platforms. This is often as simple as adding specific words, like “since” or “near,” to your searches. Those words, also known as operators, can extend the capabilities of your search to find results that are specific to certain dates or locations. Here’s an example of a Boolean query searching for election fraud concerns in Pennsylvania on Twitter: (Pennsylvania or PA) AND (fraud or steal) AND (election). Experiment and refine your terms based on the hits you get.

Going deeper, Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed discusses how he uses Crowdtangle to track misinformation on social platforms by creating lists of users or pages to follow.

First Draft offers additional guidance for monitoring information on other platforms, like Reddit and Instagram.

Ask your audiences about misinformation they’re seeing or issues they’re uncertain about.

You can turn to your audiences to identify misinformation before it becomes widespread. Minnesota Public Radio asks their audience to submit examples of mis- and disinformation through a form as part of a general landing page about misinformation, Disinformation 2020: Can You Believe It?

Documented and Univision 41 in New York put a call out to their audiences for examples of misinformation spreading on WhatsApp, television and social media. They fact checked the 10 most common examples in both English and Spanish.  

Or ask your audiences what questions they have about a given topic, like Southern California Public Radio and WDIV-TV in Detroit are doing for their coronavirus coverage. You may not be able to respond to every issue or question raised, but if you address the most prominent ones quickly, you can help stem the spread of misinformation by addressing clear information needs. KPCC offers this template as an example of their workflow when handling audience questions.

Also tell your audience that you stand on the side of facts and will not tolerate misinformation in conversations you host. State clearly that you will delete comments that are obviously false or designed to mislead, as the Coloradoan did in this post in a Facebook group. Doing that reinforces that you care about accuracy and can be trusted to keep people informed — both within your coverage and in resulting conversations.

When should we respond to misinformation?

Unfortunately, there aren’t definite rules for deciding when to respond to false claims. It’s important to proceed with caution, however, as many coordinated disinformation campaigns can be intended to elicit responses from mainstream media outlets to spread their message.

Consider tipping points

Experts at First Draft and Data & Society recommend considering tipping points, or the point at which a piece of misinformation spreads beyond the community in which it originated or if there’s substantial public value in addressing the misinformation now.

Among other questions, First Draft encourages journalists to consider:

  • Who is my audience? Is it likely that they have seen a particular piece of mis- or disinformation already? What are the consequences of bringing this content to their attention?
  • How much traffic should a piece of mis- or disinformation have before we address it?
  • How do we think about the impact of mis- and disinformation? Do we care about how many people see the content, or do we care about who sees the content?

The decision to respond to misinformation should also be guided by how you will respond.

How should we respond to misinformation?

The good news is that effectively responding to misinformation often depends on the work journalists do daily. The more “good” information the public has about a topic or question, the less likely misinformation is to take hold. 

Lead with the facts, not the falsehood.

Repeating false claims frequently can actually reinforce belief in the falsehood. When debunking a false claim, it’s best practice always to reinforce what’s true, rather than what’s not. But as Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Bristol, notes in an interview with STAT, “…you can repeat the misinformation to clarify that’s what it is you’re correcting.”  In a recent report on contending with misinformation, Susan Benkelman, director of accountability journalism at API, explained the concept of a  truth sandwich: To  emphasize what’s true, put the truth first, then the falsehood, then repeat the truth.

Lead with what’s true in headlines.

Online, many people may never see more about a story than the headline. It’s critical to ensure headlines reinforce truth, rather than a false claim being debunked. In a 2019 Nieman Lab article, Joshua Benton highlights examples of headlines unintentionally reinforcing misinformation in search results and on social media.

Aimee Rinehart asks journalists to think of headlines as an inverted pyramid

Consider the values and beliefs of your audience that may make false information more palatable than the truth.

A study released this year from researchers at MIT and the University of Regina suggests that, while participants looking at a set of true and false claims in a group of Facebook posts were generally able to rate true claims as true and false claims as false, participants were almost as likely to share the false claims as the true claims. Co-author David Rand offers a possible explanation: “People care about accuracy in the abstract, but this social media context focuses their attention on other things. Like, how will my friends and followers react? What does this post or share say about me as a person?” 

People value truth, but they also value their identities and their relationships. University of Wisconsin researchers suggest factual information connect with the values and beliefs individuals hold. For example, in covering COVID-19, journalists can place recommendations from scientists in a context that also includes both a discussion of the trade-offs of various policy proposals based on those scientific recommendations and an acknowledgment of levels of certainty.   

Build trust with your audiences by being transparent about your reporting processes.

It’s critical to highlight why audiences should trust your reporting, especially around misinformation. In “Are you fighting misinformation? Tell your audience,” Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, shares tips for building audience trust. 

  1. Speak directly to your audience about your goals in covering misinformation and your processes for doing so in your reporting, on social media and in newsletters.
  2. Help your audience navigate information, like how to think about polls or how to spot misinformation on their social feeds.
  3. Show your audience what makes your coverage credible, including how stories are selected, how you establish a context for your reporting, and how you check facts.

For more, sign up for the weekly Trusting News newsletter offering short “trust tips” to help put trust-building ideas into practice.