Four ways to get your audience involved in your election coverage

Julia Haslanger
Oct 3, 2016 · 5 min read

Election season is one of the most exciting times to work in a newsroom. As someone who’s worked in small local newsrooms and big national newsrooms, including four years at Politico, I’ve seen how the weeks leading up to an election often are the most high-energy times of the year. Now that I’m at Hearken, I’ve been closely watching how newsrooms are putting that energy to good use with Hearken’s audience-first approach and tools.

Traditionally, journalists feel a duty to inform the public about the candidates and issues. One of the classic lessons taught to journalism students is that “the more democratic a society, the more news and information it tends to have.” For a community to govern itself, it needs journalists, the thinking goes. But sometimes that sense of responsibility can inflate newsroom egos, with editors and reporters believing they know what citizens need in order to be “informed voters.”

Here at Hearken, we think editors aren’t the only ones with good and important story ideas. [See Jennifer Brandel’s “7 Things I Never Learned in Journalism School”.] We agree with Jeff Jarvis and Melody Kramer that the best thing newsrooms can do in the next five weeks is:

“Listen. Go to the many constituencies who are unreflected in media and do not ask for quotes to fill in the stories you’ve already invented. Ask them what matters to them. And listen.”

Of course, we think listening to your audience is important every day. Making sure you’re providing the information your community needs to function and govern itself is essential to both journalism’s mission and bottom line. But in an election season, we recognize it’s especially important. And this season in particular, it’s a challenging time to be a voter looking for trustworthy information, and it’s easy to feel powerless. It’s been fantastic to see how Hearken’s partner newsrooms are empowering voters by taking their questions and concerns seriously. Here are four ways newsrooms are listening — using Hearken — around elections:

Inform your events and interviews with candidates

New Hampshire Public Radio used Hearken to collect questions that community members had for the candidates for governor, and then used those questions during a live public forum with the candidates.

One of the questions NHPR listeners submitted for the candidates

After the event, reporter Casey McDermott sliced up the recorded audio and wrote up the responses the candidates had to community members’ questions. She also followed up by email with the question-askers. A week later, they repeated the process for an interview with the current governor, who is running for a Senate seat.

The questions that came in were thoughtful and the whole thing was a good way for the journalists to check themselves and make sure they’re leading the interviews to topics the audience cares about.

In a similar fashion, earlier this year for the primaries, Vermont Public Radio solicited listener questions for its debates. Here’s how VPR’s audience-informed Democratic primary debate turned out.

Collaborate with regional newsrooms

Five newsrooms in Texas teamed up to collect Texans’ questions about the election. For the collaboration, each newsroom put a Hearken “curiosity module” embed on their respective websites, so they could collect questions from all over the state. Then, the explainer page says, “Reporters at stations across Texas will dig into the most intriguing questions and story ideas from our listeners.”

More than 100 questions have come in so far, and the stations have asked the audience to vote about which stories to pursue. It’s a good experiment to watch over the next month if you’re curious how newsrooms can work together to learn from and serve a broader audience.

Help build your voting guide for local races

Washington, D.C., radio station WAMU asked its readers and listeners to help it choose which issues to include in its voter guide. The call-out page makes it clear that they’re looking for questions relating to local races (and lists the races), not the presidential race. WAMU also smartly sent an email to its members to let them know about the effort.

Generate an abundance of story ideas and find the ones that most resonate with your audience

This example isn’t from the U.S. election, but it was such a success, it’s worth mentioning now. The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC News) used Hearken earlier this year in advance of Australia’s big federal election.

In less than two months, the newsroom collected more than 2,400 questions from people across the country, and reported out answers to a dozen of the best questions. To narrow down to the questions the audience most cared about, the newsroom held three voting rounds.

This is a model use of Hearken, the approach we recommend most often to newsrooms. When readers give journalists so many great story ideas, the journalists can pick their favorites to run with immediately, but then also use the voting rounds to get more audience input about the best questions. The voting rounds are especially valuable because before a newsroom puts any resources into reporting a story, it has already established that there is a sizable audience and demand for it. No more waiting on metrics to roll in and see if you spent your time and money on the right stories.

Hearken isn’t the only way newsrooms are engaging readers during this crucial time for our democracy. We admire the efforts by places like the Open Debate Coalition to bring more voices into the debate process, as well as the creative ways media companies like USA Today, Buzzfeed and Univision are encouraging and enabling their audience members to register to vote.

You can (and many do) take the audience-first approach Hearken embodies and scrape together any tools you’d like to approximate it (gather questions with pen and paper at a local event, use a Google form, social media, etc.). But…[Quick sales pitch ahead:] Hearken’s tech is built to handle volume and scale in a streamlined way specifically for journalists. We do offer 2-months risk-free to try Hearken and can get you set up quickly ahead of the election. Holler if you’re interested.) [/sales pitch]

There’s a very real deadline approaching. Will you invite your audience to the editorial table during this important moment for journalism and democracy?

Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help:

Julia Haslanger

Written by

Journalism nerd exploring audience engagement, analytics and newsrooms. My path so far: WI ▹ Mizzou ▹ CO ▹ DC ▹ NYC ▹ Chicago. Engagement consultant at Hearken.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: