Golden Insights: Lessons from Election SOS Newsrooms

Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken
Published in
12 min readFeb 20, 2023

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With any initiative Hearken does, we do our best to make time for reflection. It can be tough to do it — being reactive to incoming requests and planning for the future is constantly tugging at any blocked out time to just process, think, and learn.

But it’s always, always worth it.

We spent January reading through the reflections of nearly a dozen newsrooms who participated in our month-long Election SOS training program in 2022. This program is an iteration on our “Engaged Elections” training we offered in 2020, the goal being to help newsrooms center their elections and politics coverage on the communities they intend to serve, rather than on candidates or politicians.

We supported newsrooms as a cohort in a four-part workshop series that helped them develop their mission statement for political coverage, build a stakeholder map for whom they hoped to reach and serve, and create a strategy and metrics around engaging those communities.

In 2022, we worked with the following newsrooms:

  • PBS SoCal | KCET
  • WSHU Public Radio
  • Las Vegas Review-Journal
  • Cicero Independiente
  • Nuestro Estado
  • Santa Cruz Local
  • El Tecolote
  • The Haitian Times
  • Atlanta Voice
  • WFPL News
  • WUWM
  • Shasta Scout
  • News4JAX
  • WFDD
  • KQED
  • WFAE

The greatest part of programs like these, in our opinion, is the three-way learning: there’s what newsrooms learn from the instructors / facilitators, what newsrooms learn from each other, and what we learn from the newsrooms. It’s an exhilarating love triangle.

What Newsrooms Learned From Election SOS

We’re thrilled to say that newsroom staff who went through our program found a ton of value in it. They told us the training helped them in the following ways:

  • Facilitated a shift in their broader editorial approach to elections coverage (and beyond)
  • Helped them to establish and streamline processes for more efficient and effective work
  • They were able to identify and experiment with ways to address previously unsatisfied community content and delivery needs
  • Increased the public perception of trustworthiness and credibility for the newsroom
  • Increased funding and made other gains towards business goals
  • Formed new partnerships with other community organizations and news outlets
  • Resulted in greater alignment and communication internally
  • Increased utility of content through greater relevance, representation, and accessibility
  • Increased civic engagement as a result of access to useful & relevant information
  • Increased trust, confidence or deeper relationships between newsrooms and communities

Whew! We’re so proud that our program was able to foster that broad range of growth and outcomes.

What We Learned From These Newsrooms

Just as exciting to us is what we learned from these newsrooms. We know there are infinite ways that newsrooms can put engagement and principles into practice, and with those experiments and experiences there are always golden lessons to be learned.

For the love of learning and for the love of the effort and brilliance brought to bear by these newsrooms and their staff, we feel compelled to share some of the favorite insights we learned, many of which don’t have to do directly with engagement.

Help Your Communities Understand How To Run For Office

Cicero Independiente is a bilingual, news organization for the people of Cicero and Berwyn, IL.

Based on previous engagement efforts with their audiences, their team knew that information about local elections, including how and when to run for local office, was of interest to people ages 20–35.

Irene Romulo is their development and community engagement coordinator who also managed their engaged elections strategies. She said that the information about how to run for office is hard to find, and so “We decided to dive into this with reporting about the challenges local candidates face as well as a public event to demystify the process of running for local office.”

She said the people they serve are interested in running for local office so that they can challenge current elected officials.

Jorge Martinez leads a panel where current officials and former candidates for public office in Cicero and Berwyn, Ill., shared how to run for elected positions, on November 12, 2022 at Maze Library in Oak Park, Ill. Photo by Jesus J. Montero.

To move toward this service, Cicero Independiente distributed a survey that helped shape their public event about how to run for local office, as well as created a print edition that included reporting on how to run for office, invitation to the event and a local elections guide.

They encouraged readers to send in questions/comments via text if they didn’t want to fill out the survey form, and received several questions which were later incorporated into the panel.

They plan to use the feedback from participants at their event into their next elections coverage plan, and to provide information ahead of time about candidate requirements and filing deadlines and a public forum with potential candidates.

We love that Cicero Independiente is listening to their communities and empowering them with the information they need to understand how people become candidates, and how they can, too.

The Reporting Process Reveals Candidate’s Character … & Could Be Part of Reporting

The Haitian Times held a series of stakeholder listening sessions in Haitian communities to better understand what would be useful to them in political coverage. Their readers told them that they were interested in biographical sketches of each candidate to better understand the candidates’ qualifications and help inform voting decisions. This shaped their coverage approach to midterms, and also led to ideas for how to extend candidate profiles in the future.

Garry Pierre-Pierre, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and founder of The Haitian Times, observed that the “candidates’ handling of media requests, preparation (or lack thereof) for interviews, and even willingness to engage with community news can often reveal much about the contenders’ priorities, experience, backing, etc. Such tales, we believe, would be useful in the future to truly show the candidates’ characters beyond the scripted PR appearances. So in the future, we’ll be better prepared to show the audience what’s behind the curtain with “a day in the life” type of reporting where we shadow a politician for a more telling story.”

We love this extension of trust and transparency tactics to provide voters more insight into how candidates behave off camera or mic, and hope more reporters use their observations to shed light on who candidates really are as people.

Articles May Not Be the Most Effective Way to Move People to Participate in Democracy

Nuestro Estado is focused on serving Spanish-speakers in the South. In addition to providing news on candidates in Spanish and building out a terrific Election Hub and The People’s Beat to base their coverage on their communities’ needs, they also spent a lot of time out in the world.

Publisher Fernando Soto said, “We don’t think that articles are the most effective way to move people from uninterested in participating in democracy to actively participating in democracy.”

While we are in the community as boots on the ground learning from them during events like food giveaways and festivals, we think that same approach might yield more action from our audience when it comes to elections. We think that will be an opportunity for people to share specific examples and for us to answer direct questions.”

Nuestro Estado’s team tabling at a community gathering. Photo courtesy Fernando Soto.

Their team took advantage of two Latinx Heritage Month festivals and participated through having their own Nuestro Estado tent. They asked those who visited if they knew about the elections coming up, who candidates were and what was important to them and their family.

A key lesson the team learned was that Spanish-speakers they spoke with were not necessarily aware of how the elected offices affect aspects of their lives.

Regarding what they’ll do in the future, Soto said, “Our assumption is that hosting in-person events that are interactive and engaging would better drive the messaging.”

They plan to go back into their communities with specific elections-related programming and to involve people in conversation about how policies at the local and state level affect their everyday lives. They’re also going to explore partnership with other local or state non-partisan organizations who aim to engage underserved communities in democracy.

“Extremists” Are People, Too … and Voters and Candidates

We’re living in tricky times, in which sometimes reporters choose to ignore people with extreme views and extremist candidates. There are a variety of arguments here, including not wanting to give a platform or more credence to their views. But what do you do when the community your newsroom serves includes many extremists and extremist candidates? How do you describe people who don’t use or relate to that word “extremist”? How do you help voters understand what’s at stake and what those running for office stand for?

This is something that Annelise Pierce, the founder, editor and community reporter at the Shasta Scout contends with everyday. She serves Shasta County in Northern California, a place in which many far-right and militant viewpoints have found fertile ground and spread.

On election night, Annelise Pierce captured a photo and video of a militia member confronting law enforcement in order to gain access to ballots arriving by vehicle in this alley behind the elections office. Learn more here.

As a one-woman shop, Annelise had her work cut out for her to engage her audience and report on what they told her they needed to know from candidates.

She released a survey to her audience to gather their information gaps and needs in elections coverage, and said her audience “was very responsive to the idea that we were ‘flipping the script’ and we had lots of engagement.”

From those information needs, she created a consistent, community-centered interview guide to go out and get answers from candidates. She conducted 15 long-form interviews, as well as a few email interviews and published 18 stories over the course of 6 weeks.

Pierce said, “We only had one candidate not respond to us which was huge given how new we are and how tense the political climate is here. The candidates loved our process. They appreciated that we went to the people, and that we asked the same questions of everyone.

Something really interesting is that people with what we think of as extreme political views often have a high value for listening to the people. They’re very focused on a similar “we the people” theme. So they particularly really valued how we flipped the script.”

Another big lesson learned was around language. Pierce said they’re careful with the word “Extremist” and other similar language.

Shasta Scout has worked with Trusting News to thread this needle of what to call people and how to reference extremist beliefs or actions.

Pierce said, “Instead of referring to people as extremist which has relative definitions depending on the reader, we work to help our audience understand the views of the candidate themselves. We asked questions like: “Some people refer to you as an extremist. How do you respond to that?” “Since the word extremist doesn’t describe you very well, how would you describe yourself?”

That allowed them to respond in their own words to say for example ‘I’m an extreme constitutionalist.’”

Pierce added that, “Those “extremist” candidates love this approach and they trust us at Shasta Scout and think we treat them fairly despite them knowing that we tend to report on issues like inclusion of Native community members and the environment.

And our other readers are still able to understand what they will interpret as the extreme viewpoints of these candidates because the candidates are still sharing those perspectives, just in other words. If we can just ask candidates to speak for themselves, and hear what they’re saying, we’re able to each take away a reasonable interpretation in a way. It’s very fascinating work.”

It’s easy to forget when politics and social discourse gets toxic and dehumanizing, that behind every viewpoint and value system is a person who wants to be understood. And that part of the job of a newsroom is to understand and accurately communicate who a candidate is, what they stand for, and what that view could mean for democracy.

Pierce said, “Our focus was on helping people understand what the politicians’ promises could look like in practice. What we see locally with some candidates is big promises to defund things or conduct “forensic audits” that look good in practice but can be used to sort of implode local government from the inside after gaining office.

For example: Redding is the home of Bethel, an influential, internationally known mega church. They espouse the 7 Mountains Mandate which says essentially that believers should infiltrate and take over the mountains of society to bring God’s kingdom to earth. For some leaders they espouse Christian Nationalism. We covered that specifically when we interviewed candidates for the Redding City Council because the race involved the possibility of a Bethel-affiliated majority coming into power. We thought it was important for people to understand Bethel’s theology and what it might mean for the Democratic process if Bethel candidates were elected to office.”

We’re so inspired by how Pierce and the reporting she did for the Shasta Scout focused on meeting her community’s information needs, treating candidates fairly and with dignity, and not shying away from letting readers know what their ideologies could mean for democracy.

The Question You Ask Really Matters, So Test Out A Few Options To See What Works

Santa Cruz Local serves the people of Santa Cruz County and uses engaged journalism practices, solutions journalism and transparency approaches in their reporting. They’ve been doing a version of the citizens agenda since 2020, in which they center the information needs of their community to power their reporting.

Natalya Dreszer, their Sr. Community Engagement and Business Development Coordinator, had a variety of fantastic lessons from advancing their engagement approach this past election cycle.

Dreszer said when they were interviewing community members, they started asking: “what is your biggest need from local government?” That question didn’t often yield anything of substance, so they played with the ask and instead posed these questions: “what could you use help with right now?” “What about people you know?

Santa Cruz Local Sr. Community Engagement and Business Development Coordinator Natalya Dreszer, right, interviews a Santa Cruz County resident at a coffee shop in 2020. (Kara Meyberg Guzman — Santa Cruz Local)

They said that resulted in candid and emotional responses, that reveleaved services or gaps that local government could fill. And it helped their team understand the importance of answering the question “why should I care?” about elections and local government. Afterall, it’s hard to care if you don’t know what local government does and can do for you.

Dreszer said, “If you tell them local government can decide to distribute rent relief, fix roads, or fund after-school childcare, it’s a different story.”

Hard-Won Engagement Wisdom

Here are some fabulous additional lessons learned that Natalya Dreszer of Santa Cruz Local shared with us, and that you get to benefit from, too:

Just get started! Go out and talk to people in the communities you want to hear from. People can be distrustful of the media so you have to be patient and gain their trust by listening. Be okay with people not wanting their names or faces in community engagement interviews because there is a difference between “serving” and “reporting on” communities.

Stay organized. Set aside time after every listening session to code your data, because if you don’t it will be overwhelming.

You aren’t going to get a scientific cross-section of any community you want to hear from. Figure out how you’re going to go about reaching people you want to reach and be ready to preemptively defend and explain your thinking. Even if people disagree with your decisions, if you’re honest it’s going to be a lot easier to get them on your side.

Use every critique as an opportunity to bring someone around. I try to respond with the formula “I agree with you that [insert a value that I’m aligned about],” add a brief explanation of my reasoning, and end with a “thank you for being engaged in our work.”

For example, we had someone who emailed us with the critique that we focused more on interviewing people from South County areas than North County areas and that made for a biased People’s Agenda. I responded along the lines of “I agree with you that people across the county deserve to be heard…” and “I’m grateful to know that our audience is thinking critically about our work and offering useful advice and feedback. We welcome further discussion and comments.” The reader responded to that with praise!

Thank you Santa Cruz Local for this hard-won and deeply valuable wisdom!

Special thanks to the American Press Institute and the MacArthur Foundation for their support of a variety of newsrooms who took this training.

If your newsroom is interested in experimenting with how to better listen to and respond to those you aim to serve around elections and democracy, we’re here to help! We’ll be launching additional training cohorts on Engaged Elections in 2023 and 2024. Reach out to Hearken to let us know you’re interested, and we’ll let you know when the next opportunity arises!

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Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken

Accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken. Founder of @WBEZCuriousCity Find me: @JenniferBrandel @wearehearken wearehearken.com