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Credit: Austin Geter.

What will journalists do when Election Night becomes Election Week?

Or Month? How newsrooms can rise to the 2020 challenge

Bridget Thoreson
Aug 4, 2020 · 5 min read

“It’s been 102 hours since the polling results last budged, and here again is our correspondent in the field to offer more insight into what these results could mean for the outcome of last Tuesday’s presidential contest…”

What will November 2020 look like if news outlets use the same tired playbook that served us so badly in the last presidential election?

We are just three months away from the unprecedented challenges of the U.S. presidential election coming to a head on Election Night. It is increasingly likely that results will be agonizingly slow in returning. For the news media obsessed with competition and attention-grabbing, this could mean disaster. As The New York Times pointed out Sunday, there is a chasm between the confidence of some newsroom managers and hosts and “near panic” among analysts and producers; or as one source put it, “‘The nerds are freaking out.’”

The script writes itself:

  • Ill-equipped for a long-term coverage scenario, newsrooms turn to their usual playbooks.
  • Only this time, when the coverage drags into day 3, day 5, even week 2, all the fancy graphics and detailed analysis in the world won’t cover up the glaring truth: We Don’t Know. We don’t know who is winning, we don’t know what the result will be, we don’t even know when we can expect more results.

Side note: When’s the last time you heard a journalist publicly admit they didn’t know something?

  • And so what will they use to fill all that air time, all those pages, all those news feeds? You can imagine. Barely verified, quick-hit “breaking news” alerts that do nothing to inform the public about what actually matters. Breathless updates — the needle moved slightly in one county in Arizona! Additional ballots have arrived for counting at this Pennsylvania courthouse!
  • Newsroom muscle memory and incentives to make the news eye-catching and dramatic will ratchet up confusion, anxiety and despair for already beleaguered Americans. Doubt will be cast on the outcomes of the election, even if there was no foul play and it is just taking a very long time to count. Doubt will be cast upon democracy itself.
  • In the days and weeks that follow the contest, an increasingly exhausted public turns away from credible news sources to misinformation and rumor, losing the pulse of what’s truly happening in a nation ravaged by a pandemic and ripe for exploitation by bad actors. Calls to take to the streets may be followed by demonstrators and military alike.

How does this all end? We don’t know — but we know it cannot be good for democracy.

And now, an alternate possibility…

There is a better way.

As renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote:

“There is only one cardinal rule: one must always listen to the patient; and, by the same token, the cardinal sin is not listening, ignoring.”

Journalists are not doctors, but we are an essential component of a healthy democracy. And, like doctors, we need to listen first to understand what the public needs us to provide. When needed, we can also call in specialists — i.e. the experts — to provide answers when we are stumped.

Sacks, immediately following the quote above in the conclusion from his book Migraine, went on to describe how essential it is for both patient and physician to establish a relationship “in which the patient is not entirely passive and compliant” but which is “essentially collaborative.”

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Credit: Austin Geter.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again — audiences aren’t idiots. Turning to the public to power your journalism exponentially increases newsrooms’ ability to dig up the most relevant, hard-hitting, surprising stories to serve their audiences’ information needs. And this is especially true in times of crisis.

There are three commitments newsrooms can make now so their Election Week reporting is a triumph instead of a nightmare:

  1. Turn to the public. Move beyond opinion polls and crowdsourcing to develop a deep understanding of what people need to know in order to vote, and to do it safely. This is the citizens agenda approach, described by Jay Rosen, that newsrooms around the country are putting into practice.
  2. Turn to the experts. Verified, respected, nonpartisan sources who can speak clearly and accurately to what is happening and, yes, what We Don’t Know.
  3. Scenario plan for everything. How are you protecting your staff from harassment, violence in the field, cybersecurity, burnout? How are you protecting the rights of people in your community who don’t know how to vote safely or may be targets of voter suppression? How are you protecting the democratic process by not stirring up needless doubt and anxiety when an outcome isn’t clear or known immediately? How prepared are you for the many procedural threats that could undermine the outcomes?

We’ve been working tirelessly for more than a year to prepare for this moment through our Election SOS program, supported by the American Press Institute and Democracy Fund, in collaboration with Trusting News. The program’s goal is simply this: support journalists in responding to critical election information needs.

That support comes in a variety of forms: nearly 100 journalists so far have completed our four-week training programs in engaged and trustworthy elections coverage; more have attended our information sessions for journalists on topics related to protecting a free and fair election. We are hard at work on new training and resources for this final sprint to the electoral finish, to respond to journalists’ urgent information needs in the weeks leading up to, and following, Nov. 3.

But this next part is up to you.

If this is the vision of Election Week that you believe in:

  • One that puts people, not pundits, at the center of coverage;
  • One that admits we may not hold all the answers but we will do our damnedest to get them for you;
  • One that refuses to be buffeted about by talking points and trending topics but cuts through the noise with a rock-solid commitment to what people truly need to know;
  • One that has voters well-informed about how to vote, where to vote, who is on their ballot, what is at stake, and what to do if someone threatens their rights;
  • One that has news media who have thoughtfully planned for myriad threats and isn’t caught off-guard by chaos, and is able to steer people toward what’s known;

… then take that first step today. Do it now, before you get pulled away by the million other things demanding your attention.

Join us. Sign up for our free resources and training here.

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We may not know what the future holds, but we do know this: we will be accountable for how we meet this challenge. Three months from today — will you be ready?

Election SOS partners:

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and…

Bridget Thoreson

Written by

Storyteller and audience advocate. Engagement manager at Hearken, helping newsrooms pursue public-powered journalism.

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: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Bridget Thoreson

Written by

Storyteller and audience advocate. Engagement manager at Hearken, helping newsrooms pursue public-powered journalism.

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: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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