In the final days of election season, tell (and show) your audience why they can trust you

Mollie Muchna
Oct 22, 2020 · 15 min read

The Trusting News team (myself, Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh) has had a lot to say about the elections over the past few months. We’ve written newsletters, given presentations, conducted Election SOS trainings, launched a text-message course, worked with API’s Trusted Elections Network and generally looked for any avenue to be useful to journalists.

Yet we know our advice around transparency and engagement has not yet reached a lot of overwhelmed, dedicated journalists. This post aims to collect what we most hope to convey in one place.

Demonstrating credibility matters. There has been a lot of uncertainty and confusion around the elections, and local communities are looking for fair and trustworthy coverage. It’s on us to let them know we are providing that information and to defend our credibility. So while it can be easy to blow off negative comments or people questioning your reporting, it’s essential to respond, fight back and share your processes.

We don’t expect you to be able to implement all these ideas. Instead, we hope you skim through and focus on the parts that resonate with the challenges your own newsroom is facing.

Below are the topics we cover in this post. Click to jump to that section to find tips and ideas for how you can respond and defend your credibility.

1. Defend your coverage (against accusations of a liberal bias, “fake news” attacks and swirling misinformation)

2. Explain what you do and don’t cover (including your story selection process and how you handle wire news)

3. Talk about your sourcing (how facts can change quickly, when and how you cite polls and how you report election results)

4. Explain how you work to be fair (clear up accusations of bias in news coverage, and separate opinion coverage from the newsroom)

If you want to chat more or have something specific you’d like help with, we invite you to reach out to our team at info@trustingnews.org or on Twitter at @trustingnews.

Accusations of liberal bias

Many of you probably get accused of having a liberal bias — of publishing more “negative” content about conservative politicians and reporting more favorably on progressive ideas and candidates.

First, have some empathy for the user experience of consuming political news. Remember that it’s reasonable for news consumers to be frustrated by partisan information, overwhelmed with choices and confused about what news to trust. Then, tell your audience how you work hard to be fair — and don’t be afraid to stand behind your coverage.

Look at how PolitiFact Editor-in-Chief Angie Drobnic Holan ended one of her newsletters during the Republic National Convention. The Politifact team identified what they wanted people to know about their work and to found a way to articulate those things clearly. It’s not enough to just link to the fact checks from the Democratic National Convention. They say why they’re linking to and what values they’re communicating by doing so.

TRY THIS LANGUAGE:

“We strive to cover all candidates fairly, no matter what their political affiliation is. We don’t try to make any candidates or parties look bad. We cover what happens and how people say they feel about a candidate/issue. This means you will sometimes see people quoted in stories sharing negative and positive feelings about individuals/issues. By sharing those perspectives we are not agreeing or disagreeing with them, we are sharing the information to help provide you with context and insight, so you can make your own decision.”

“Fake news” attacks

It seems a lot of editors and news directors want to avoid discussions involving the term “fake news” at all costs. Some say they don’t want to perpetuate or validate the term by using it. That’s understandable, but it doesn’t mean you should ignore it when people accuse you of being a part of it.

Responding to claims of “fake news” might turn out to be beneficial for you, your news organization and your audience. What if you are able to help the user (and all the other people reading the comments) better understand what the term means and what news really is? What if you are able to help them be smarter news consumers and better understand what your organization provides?

TRY THIS:

When responding to accusations of “fake news”:

  • Acknowledge that the media landscape is tricky to navigate.
  • Ask for more specific feedback in response to your generic user complaints.
  • Explain how you fact-check or how you work to be fair in your coverage.
  • Remind people that you cover a whole range of issues (it’s less typical to claim “fake news” about coverage of traffic and the arts).
  • Try discussing the different types of information people might be viewing (opinion vs. news, for example) and educate them on how to tell if a news website is trustworthy.
  • Be ready to explain why you run wire or syndicated content and who you trust to provide that. (More on that is below, under “explain what you cover.”)

Engagement tips

Most of you know firsthand what it is like to have your credibility attacked.

The question is: Are you ignoring those attacks, or do you feel empowered to respond to them?

TRY THIS:

  • Be prepared. Arm yourself with answers to common complaints and have them ready to share.
  • Remember that when you choose to respond to a comment, you’re addressing not just a commenter but everyone else who’s reading. Don’t let your critics have the last word about your credibility. Correct the public record about your work.
  • Involve the whole newsroom. This isn’t just about management. The entire staff should know how to respond to criticism because every person might have to defend their work or your newsroom’s work at some point.
  • Remember that your mission is journalism. It can be easy to start a fight with a politician who is attacking your reporting but don’t get sucked in. Stick to sharing the facts and answering questions.
  • Correct mistakes. We hate when they happen and try so hard to prevent them, but if they do happen, be sure to correct them and tell your audience when you do.
  • Be sensitive to your community during critical times. Avoid actions that make you a target of criticism that you are insensitive and care only about getting a good story.
  • Think about both the tone and content of your responses. Be respectful and calm, and think about what you want people to understand about you. Read responses out loud to your colleagues if you’re not sure you’ve hit the right mark.
  • Make your engagement more efficient by saving responses to common questions or complaints. Use a google doc, Slack channel or other newsroom platforms to copy and paste language you and your colleagues might want to reuse.

Misinformation and disinformation

Unfortunately, not all information is credible, and some is being produced with the intention to deceive. It’s overwhelming for journalists, and even more so for the public. When it comes to misinformation and disinformation, we can’t turn a blind eye. Deleting and correcting misinformation is important. If we want to stand apart from the irresponsible parts of the information landscape, we should help people navigate it. We can earn trust by being a resource in this way.

TRY THIS:

  • Monitor. It’s important to moderate your conversation spaces. Don’t be afraid to delete links to stories that include false information. Don’t hesitate to delete images that are altered. Don’t feel bad about preventing someone from posting in a group if they continually share misinformation. (As a comment moderator, try thinking of yourself as the host of a party. You wouldn’t let someone come into your party and yell inflammatory lies, right?)
  • Respond. Tell your audience you won’t tolerate or help spread misinformation. Here’s a great example from the Coloradoan. Also, don’t be afraid to explain how your news-gathering process works. Walking people through the steps you took can help dispel misinformation and disinformation claims. Lastly, this post from Joy Mayer has more tips.
  • Teach news literacy. Help users navigate the news. Take care when covering conspiracy theories.

Story selection

Does your audience know about your goals with your elections coverage? Or, like so much of journalism’s internal deliberations, is your purpose invisible to outsiders?

Picture the process of how your newsroom decides which stories to cover. If we’re honest, a lot of those decisions happen intuitively. We have conventions we follow about what’s newsworthy and what’s not. We have big-picture fairness we’re trying to achieve when it comes to who and what gets attention. We know what stories we did last year and try not to repeat them.

And if we’re *really* honest, we admit that some of those decisions are based on things we don’t really verbalize, much less explain to the public.

Explaining how we choose which stories to cover is always a good idea, but it becomes even more pertinent when covering politics and elections.

Your audience notices what you cover and wonders about what you don’t cover. And if you don’t let them in on your process, they’ll make all kinds of assumptions about your motivations and decision-making.

TRY THIS:

Articulate in a sentence (or a few) your approach to covering the election. Then think about where you could insert that messaging. Try on-air, in a newsletter or in a social post. Try putting it in italics at the top of a story, or at the top of your landing page of coverage. If you have a box teasing from election stories back to that landing page, add it to that box. (Yes, on every story. Few people will notice, much less complain about, the repetition.) It could also read like a mission statement or like an FAQ — whatever feels most natural. The Colorado Sun has a great example of what this could look like. Once it’s written, you can share it over and over in comment threads, over email — anywhere it would be useful.

Wire copy and national stories

Who do you trust to inform your audience of who is winning the presidential race and other state or regional races? You probably rely on wire services, corporate news teams or other national news organizations. Have you told your audience this?

We’re here to tell you: Your audience is talking about those stories, and they’re holding you accountable for them. And why shouldn’t they? If you publish a story — from your staff, from the Associated Press, from CNN, from The Washington Post, etc. — you’re responsible for it.

As Erica Smith of The Virginian Pilot wrote for us, she’s heard from readers who are very curious about the choices made around national political stories. Another partner, the Enid News & Eagle, included a mention of AP content in an editorial responding to a letter writer who was critical of national political coverage.

TRY THIS LANGUAGE:

“Our job is to bring you the best local journalism we can. We do pay for the right to publish content from xxx, because we think it’s important to help you stay up to date on national and world news. We’ve found their journalism, in general, to be consistent with our standards. But if you have a concern about a specific story, we’d appreciate your feedback so we can talk about it in our newsroom and also pass it along to our news partners. You can reach us at xxx.” (Include a personal email if possible.)

Fast-changing information

Journalists like certainty. They like to ask questions and provide answers. But what happens when we don’t know the answers? A common practice is to address what is known and leave out what is unknown. But that’s not always the best option when it comes to building trust.

By being upfront about things that aren’t yet known, journalists can guard against speculation that facts are being omitted on purpose and instead assure their audiences they’re continuing to ask the important questions. This is especially important when covering big, controversial stories — like elections.

With breaking news stories like elections, this is especially important. Some newsrooms explain how they handle fast-paced updates and what sources they trust in those moments. We need to point out information might change and warn users that information may be outdated if they are solely relying on social media sites or search engines to provide them with election news.

TRY THIS:

  • Inject stories with language that reflects uncertainty. Tell your users what you are learning, but also acknowledge that there is more to be known. See this example from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The story poses a question and does its best to answer it, while also being clear that the answers aren’t definitive. And that’s made clear right away, with the addition of the words “so far” to a headline.
  • Write a story explaining directly what’s missing, and why. After getting questions and complaints from readers, WEWS in Cleveland used clear language to explain to viewers why the numbers of people who recover from COVID-19 aren’t routinely shared alongside the death counts in Ohio. They addressed the underlying assumption some viewers were making: “So to answer the question: There is no conspiracy by the media to suppress good news about the coronavirus, as some have suggested. It’s a simple matter of available data.”
  • Add a date within the text of stories next to any results or comments from candidates, and make sure datelines are easy to find on stories.
  • In stories that include outdated information, include links that send users to the stories with the updated information.
  • Check social media posts and make sure posts with outdated information are no longer circulating through the Facebook newsfeed or allowed to be shared.

Polling

Political polls are a lot to navigate. As journalists, we learn how much credence to give polls. We learn to look for independence in the pollsters (financial and political). We inspect their methodology. But are you explaining any of that? Doing so could build trust in your methods and can also help your audience be more educated consumers of polling data.

TRY THIS:

  • Build news literacy about how polls work. This guide from Pew Research Center is a good place to start. Also, explain to your audience what makes polling challenging, as Politico did in this story. People know polls don’t always reflect reality, and if we explain why, we can reach people who assume the reason is a political agenda (on the part of pollsters and journalists).
  • Explain how your organization handles polls. Think about creating a page that explains how your organization handles polling data and linking to it from all stories that reference polls. With all the polls in the field, how do you decide which ones to run stories on? Which do you not cover and why? What are your benchmarks for credibility and relevance? And if you run your own polls, explain why and how, as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did here.
  • Put the importance of polls in context. Educating your community about elections and voting can involve reminding them about what really matters and what role polls play. Consider this paragraph in a Washington Post story that ran just before the Democratic National Convention about a presidential poll.

Election results

In the 2020 election, we know more people will be voting early or via mail or absentee ballot. We know those changes will affect how quickly final tallies come in. We also know the security of our voting system is being questioned by people in the highest positions of power.

These are just some of the reasons why we need to take time to explain to our users how we will be determining who wins races.

Our partners at The American Press Institute hosted a conversation with journalists from the Associated Press to address this very issue. Some of their tips focused on explaining how counting votes will work, why focusing on precincts probably doesn’t make sense this year, and why it is not a new phenomenon for results to not be available on the night of the election. (Watch the full conversation with the AP journalists here.)

TRY THIS:

Talk about where you are pulling information in from (probably your county election office and maybe the AP). Explain why you rely on those sources and how the information gets to you. Then talk about when your news organization will be calling races. Will you be deferring to the AP? Maybe you will be relying on national coverage from your affiliate or ownership. Tell your audience that and then ask them what questions they have.

The question of bias

Most journalists would say they aim for and often achieve balance and fairness. And yet … news consumers don’t recognize those ideals in the products we deliver to them, and they sure don’t give us credit for striving for them. This is especially true when it comes to political coverage.

Assure your audience that balance is a goal of yours and point out when they’re getting it. Let them know you want to highlight diverse viewpoints and be fair in how you represent the complexity of thought on an issue. By this we mean: Actually say those words.

Here’s an example from WITF news that addresses their goal of fairness within a specific story. And here’s an example from the Jefferson City News Tribune that addresses how balance often happens over time, not just within one story. This ran at the top of a page collecting coverage of a controversial political issue.

Balance and fairness can be shown visually too. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution made a bold statement in print when covering President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution included a box on its front page telling readers how the newsroom tried to keep its coverage fair.

On the newspaper’s front page, they included a box between the two stores that included this note: “To ensure our impeachment coverage continues to be balanced, we used the same format on the front page and on A7 for the Senate vote as we did the House vote on Dec. 18.” The box also showed the image of that earlier front page, as evidence that a similar layout was used.

TRY THIS:

In stories, make it a point to mention that you talked to people from both (or multiple) sides of an issue. Very clearly say you spoke to both or all of the candidates running. By mentioning that you spoke to “side a” and “side b” and pointing them in the direction of where to find coverage from multiple perspectives, you allow your community to recognize the work you are putting in to provide balance. If you are able to visually show the balance, try that as well. You can do this on a front page, in social posts or on air.

Opinion vs news content

Not being able to tell opinion content from news content is a frustration a lot of news consumers have. And, in some cases, that’s for good reason. Across platforms, news organizations don’t always make it easy.

We have to make sure we are labeling our content and using words the public will understand. And the words “editorial” and “op-ed” do not necessarily help our situation. We know what those words mean, but not all users do. And too often, even we think we’re being clear with our labeling, but the label doesn’t follow the story on all platforms, including social media and apps.

A couple of examples:

TRY THIS:

  • Look at your website and social media pages. Are labels for opinion content clearly visible in every instance? What about the content that gets broken down from your broadcast and made into clips for apps or other uses? If labels are not clearly visible, find a way to connect a label to the story.
  • Try adding the word “opinion” to the headline, text of the social post or caption for the video or audio clip. If you decide to use other words like “editorial” or “explainer” or “analysis,” it’s a good idea to explain what that content is in an editor’s note at the top of the article.
  • Make sure that labeling appears in social feeds. Don’t give readers time to assume that the news department is telling them how to vote.
  • Explain where opinion content comes from. Explain who writes the content (and who doesn’t).
  • Explain how endorsements work — why you do or don’t write them, what the process is, and how it’s separate from the news reporting team.

Trusting News is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the American Press Institute, Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Subscribe to our Trust Tips newsletter. Read more about our work at TrustingNews.org.

Trusting News

Advice from the Trusting News project team: Follow along as we demystify trust in news and empower journalists to demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust.

Mollie Muchna

Written by

Engagement editor at Arizona Daily Star. Project manager with TrustingNews. Adjunct instructor at the University of Arizona.

Trusting News

Advice from the Trusting News project team: Follow along as we demystify trust in news and empower journalists to demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust.