Engaged Journalism for Stronger Democracy: Announcing Election SOS Report
by Bridget Thoreson, Anothony Cave, Yemile Bucay, and Kamila Jambulatova
What if newsrooms could do election coverage better?
That question was the foundation of Election SOS. The initiative brought together collaborators from across the journalism industry to provide training, resources, and financial support to newsrooms covering elections in 2020.
For us, doing election coverage “better” meant surfacing critical community information needs by using engagement and trust-building best practices. Between May and September of last year, 148 journalists from 89 newsrooms participated in the month-long online training programs ran by Hearken and Trusting News.
In February 2021, we interviewed 21 journalists from 18 newsrooms who participated in the training to create a report of lessons learned.
The report is broken down into four sections:
- Moving Forward: Lessons Learned
- BONUS: Exercises to use in your strategic planning session
It is meant for anyone seeking to improve how well their coverage addresses the critical information needs of those they serve. The lessons from these newsrooms’ experiments can be put toward all types of coverage, not just elections.
Below is an excerpt from the successes section (who doesn't like to celebrate wins!). We invite you to download the full report so you can build on the foundation these newsrooms created in your own work.
Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic and the political climate to covering the election and reaching audiences, the journalists with whom we spoke encountered successes they had not had in previous election cycles. The successes were unique to the goals of each newsroom, but they all shared a few elements:
- Service journalism did in fact serve audiences…and drove up engagement
- Engaging audiences led to stronger reporting and furthered reach
- Reaching underserved communities required making that a priority
- Listening to audiences built trust and in turn drove impact
Service Journalism is Popular
In an election year during which voting practices were changed by the pandemic throughout much of the country, audiences needed practical information about how to vote. Journalists met that need by producing guides and informational stories packaged in myriad formats.
“We created a special collection of the day with questions we thought people would ask like: Where can I vote? What’s the deadline? We created it like a special page and pushed it out over and over.”
Often seen as unsexy meat and potatoes journalism better left to interns and entry-level reporters, voting guides were wildly popular in newsrooms big and small across the country.
“Our most popular guide across the country came out on the Friday before the election. Called the procrastinator’s guide to the election, it was perfect. And the reason it works is because it was everything you need to know boiled down, and the name of it works really well. And it just got so much sharing over the weekend before the election.”
A journalist from a national newsroom shared a similar story about the popularity of reporting that served the audience’s civic needs.
“You would be surprised how helpful it was to remind people ‘If you don’t vote today, if you don’t register to vote today, you’re not voting on Election Day.’ You’d be surprised how popular that content is.”
Reaching Underserved Communities
Across the board, the journalists we spoke with knew that in 2020, they needed to do a better job covering and serving communities of color than they had in past elections. While all emphasized the need to do more of this work in all future elections, some journalists already found moderate success in reaching and engaging underserved communities. One strategy that led to success was to partner with organizations that serve those groups.
“We ended up with about 50 responses, in all, most of that coming from the Black Voters Collaborative. … We really thought it was a big success and looking forward to try and do it more and better.”
Being intentional and deliberate about reaching people beyond the white audiences that have historically been served by mainstream media also improved the diversity of perspectives represented in the coverage of the newsrooms we spoke with.
“Because (marginalized communities) were considered from the beginning. it wasn’t a haphazard ‘So we’re out doing man on the street interviews and let me find somebody who’s Black and get their thoughts about it.’ It wasn’t that sloppy. It was very intentional in the way we approached some of that and I’m happy about it. My boss did Trusting News, so he made that a priority. We had almost like advisory groups formed, there were managers involved. And we talked about how we’re including everyone in our community. And I’ve never been in a spot where it’s been that intentional.”
Part of that intentionality meant thinking through the existing barriers to delivering journalism to underserved communities and putting out stories in a format that could be accessed by the target audience. Sometimes, the solution was as simple as translating guides into other languages so more people could access them.
“All of our voting or voter education videos had been in English, and when I went through the class I thought, ‘Oh, actually we should translate these. Some of these videos need to be in Spanish and Arabic.’ … So we created these videos and shared them with whoever wanted them.”
Finding Better, Fresher Stories
Including audiences in the reporting process through efforts like the Citizens Agenda didn’t only allow newsrooms to reach more people, it also helped them tell more stories. By pursuing ideas suggested by their audiences, journalists were able to find stories that they would not have found otherwise, or that they would not have considered newsworthy had the community not expressed a desire for it.
“There’s no way our newsroom would have produced the coverage that we did without including the people that we serve. And it made the product look entirely different….We did a great job of getting stories and substance that we could not reach just in and of ourselves.”
“I think I’ve been most satisfied with the way that people have rallied to it, like people have really responded well … I’m not surprised that they were excited and got involved, but just this sense of the number of people who took time to really write in and to add their voices, and the way that that shaped our coverage. Like we deliberately did not have a story plan going in and I think that was good.”
Audience responses shaped the direction of coverage, thereby ensuring that the coverage itself was useful. For example, in response to one of the surveys put out by a local newsroom, readers wrote back with a lot of questions about one government action affecting healthcare coverage.
“So we ended up pivoting and writing about that. And I think it was really meaningful. And we were able to get to the bottom of what the government was unclear about cutting, they kept saying they were not cutting, but they actually were drastic cuts. So we were finally able to explain the small print of why this actually made a difference. And that was only because we cast this big net, and people came forward to us in this safe space to tell us what happened.”
To continue reading about the successes, download the full report here.