Making a Difference: Looking Back at Election SOS Fellows Serving Democracy
Starting in October, 39 young journalists worked with 20 newsrooms across the country as a part of our Election SOS Fellowship program. What started as the spark of an idea soon grew into a full-blown fellowship that our team created in less than two weeks.
Now, we’re celebrating a bittersweet moment as we say goodbye to the Election SOS fellows. In a matter of months, some went from having zero articles to their name to a full portfolio covering the 2020 general election, and others learned to mine social media and data for stories, becoming an integral part of their newsrooms.
In the final days of our fellowship, we’re looking back on the incredible work by those who participated.
Rebecca Coster and Hanna Merzbach joined KGW in Portland, Oregon and were active members of the TV station’s Verify team. The new endeavor by TEGNA newsrooms focuses on answering frequently asked questions and debunking mis- and dis-information. While they wrote pieces outside of the Verify section, throughout their time on the team, they were mentored by investigative reporter Cristin Severance to write dozens of informative stories. Some examples of their Verify work:
- VERIFY: Why are there different colors for return envelopes for ballots?
- VERIFY: How do I learn about candidates who aren’t listed in the voters’ pamphlet?
- VERIFY: The deadline to correct challenged ballots in Oregon is 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 17
- VERIFY: No, Gov. Kate Brown did not attend a conference in Hawaii
- VERIFY: Texts claiming ballots won’t be counted are a scam
Other fellows also worked on stories that helped walk their readers and viewers through what to expect during the election, especially with it being during a pandemic. This included a front-page story by Kristen Johnson for the Charlotte Post titled “What you’ll need to know before casting that ballot for Nov. election;” Chiara Vercellone explaining mail-in voting to News & Observer readers in “Worried that your mail-in ballot won’t count? Here’s what you need to know;” and Nuha Dolby’s piece “If you’re a voter with disabilities in Wisconsin, here’s what you should know” for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Many fellows in swing states had the opportunity to attend and cover Trump rallies or interview candidates at the state level. Zoe Katz was paired with the Macon Telegraph and interviewed high-profile political actors across the spectrum including Stacey Abrams, Jon Ossoff, Doug Collins, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock. Her political reporting continued even after the election as Georgia is in a runoff. Katz also attended a Trump rally and worked with the newspaper’s other fellow, Alex Perry, to write “‘We’re going to win the state of Georgia.’ Trump draws thousands to Macon rally.”
“I never, never, NEVER thought I would have the opportunity to interview anyone, let alone Stacey Abrams, Jon Ossoff, or Rev. Warnock,” Katz said. “I feel incredible to end my fellowship with these clips. I look at them nestled in my portfolio like they’re shiny pieces of treasure, and if I look too long, my eyes start to hurt.”
In New Hampshire, Kenneth Tran covered political rallies for the Granite State News Collaborative. The first was Eric Trump representing his father in Manchester, then when the president made his own visit.
For KAGS in College Station, Texas, Tatiana Battle did more than one stand-up, including a prime-time voting story on Election Night:
Finally, throughout the fellowship, fellows broke news for their outlets:
- Kenneth Cooper for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star: ACLU of Pa., civil rights groups file motion to intervene on ‘outrageous’ Trump campaign lawsuit
- Sherrilyn Cabrera: Analysis: Biased poll workers can hinder voting
- Erin Gavle for WCNC: Kanye West’s 2020 presidential campaign fades away
- Alex McLenon for WDET: Monica Palmer Says She Received a Phone Call From President Donald Trump
A critical perspective
The fellows not only came from around the country, but also had diverse lived experiences that benefited the communities they were serving.
For example, Vercellone, who is a bilingual international student, wrote a piece for the News & Observer in both English and Spanish about voting assistance available to non-English speakers. And Tran, who is Vietnamese-American, noticed that his community statistically tends to be more conservative politically than other Asian-Americans. He pitched and wrote a story about the conservative Vietnamese vote for the Granite State News Collaborative.
Also, being of college age, the fellows brought their perspective of being a young or first-time voter to the newsroom. With that, more than one reported stories of how young voters were impacted by the election and their access to voting during the pandemic:
- Tatiana Battle for KAGS did two stand-up reports on voter suppression at Prairie View A&M University since there is no on-campus precinct at the historically black college, and on the disadvantages the student voters face during early voting.
- Kristen Grau in Florida wrote a piece for the Treasure Coast Newspapers about the turnout of first-time voters.
- Kenneth Cooper wrote an analysis for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star of how young voters helped Biden win the state.
- Hanna Merzbach reported for KGW on young voters in Oregon and Washington making waves in their support for Biden for KGW.
Jessica Bond, who is Black, noticed that her fellowship newspaper, The Reading Eagle, was lacking in its coverage of the Latinx community in southeastern Pennsylvania. She spoke to her newsroom leadership about this issue and her feedback was embraced. Bond pitched and wrote “How outreach to Latino voters helped drive turnout for the 2020 election” and is working on a second piece on underrepresented communities.
“I was nervous at first to bring it up, but speaking up was worth it,” she said.
Making a difference
When choosing newsrooms to be a part of the fellowship, we selected two in particular because they serve underrepresented communities.
The Charlotte Post in Charlotte, North Carolina, has served as a voice for the local Black community since 1878. Two fellows, Kristen Johnson and Krystal Frierson, were paired with the newsroom because of their interest in covering the Black community. During their fellowship, they reported on early voting, Black voter outreach and voting demographics. Johnson also utilized the Election SOS Expert Network to help write an in-depth piece on Mark Robinson and the conservative Black vote.
We also selected Indigenously, a newsletter covering Native American and Alaska Native news across the country. In a media environment that undercovers America’s Indigenous peoples, the two fellows, Miacel Spotted Elk and Tsanavi Spoonhunter, broke the mold by painstakingly compiling information for databases that did not exist. For example, they compiled a list of every single Indigenous candidate running for office in the 2020 general election. After the election, they investigated the strong voter turnout among Indigenous people — including how they helped flip Arizona.
“Both of these stories are drawn for data we compiled as a team; without the data, we would not have led in these narratives,” Jenni Monet, the founder and editor-in-chief of Indigenously, said in a survey.
We were pleased to hear that towards the end of the fellowship, two Michigan newsrooms participating in the Election SOS program actually had their fellows team up on a double-byline story. Maggie McMillin for Detour Detroit and Mikhayla Dunaj for the Detroit Free Press worked together on a story about Michigan’s Election Day problems, a story inspired by Election SOS’s Pitch This story database.
It turned out both fellows had reached out to the same source for the same story — when their editors, who are friendly with one another, found out, they decided to have them work together.
“It was so nice to work with someone and talk over it, especially not being in an office right now. It felt good to be a team,” Dunaj said.