Which style of election coverage is your newsroom voting for?

Jennifer Brandel
We Are Hearken
Published in
5 min readJan 14, 2020

--

Election season is underway, and your newsroom has some important choices to make!

Namely, which style of election coverage will you be voting for? That’s right — you have agency around the approach you endorse, the information you provide and how you provide it. Not all choices are created equal here, so choose wisely!

Below is a snapshot of the contenders — what they can bring to your coverage and how they can serve the public. For a more detailed look at these approaches to elections coverage, complete with a ballot for you to cast your vote and a worksheet to determine which styles of election coverage your newsroom should pursue, download our free guide here.

What to ask yourself

In this race to get the best information to the communities you serve, you’ll want to be conscious of the risks, biases and utility inherent in each approach to elections reporting. You may want to ask yourself and your colleagues:

• What blend of coverage approaches will best prepare voters to walk into the voting booth?

• Which styles of coverage stoke divisiveness or voter apathy and how can you avoid that?

• Which styles add substance, and which are filler?

• How might you make each style the most user-friendly possible?

• And who holds the power to determine the questions asked of the candidates competing for votes, and why?

The following approaches represent the major models of elections coverage, and within each there are sub-approaches, themes and risks to consider. The model you choose will depend on a number of factors, and there’s no single choice that you’re supposed to make. Instead, we invite you to consider how each approach will make best use of your existing resources to serve the voters you’re trying to inform.

The Horse Race

Story frames include: Polling, Turnout, 48 Hour Countdown, Gameday, Post-Game Analysis, Who’s Ahead?, Frontrunner Stumbles.

When done well, this is a low effort, high impact assessment of a candidate’s effectiveness of strategy and messaging.

When done poorly, it can be overly simplistic, factually incorrect, marginalize voices and candidates, lack critical context or suggest politics is a game.

Theater Criticisms

Story frames include: Debate, Town Hall, Rally, Candidate Speeches, Candidate Interviews.

When done well, this style helps the public understand how candidates perform in high-pressure situations, provides deeper context to what’s said and recognizes that sometimes politics is a performance.

When done poorly, it lacks context and becomes harder to compare candidates with different airtime, focuses on soundbites over the big picture and trivializes what’s at stake.

Candidate Centric

Story frames: Profiles, Analysis of Associates, Scandals, Resume Reviews, Mud-Slinging.

When done well, this approach leads to accessible, user-friendly stories that create accountability and shows candidates as three-dimensional.

When done poorly, it focuses on spicy moments at the expense of the full record, sows distrust, reinforces bias and party lines and becomes white noise.

Campaign Mechanics

Story frames: Embed Gaggle, Follow the Money, Wealthy Donor, Voyeurism, Advertising Beat, Gaffes, Campaign Staff Drama.

When done well, these stories create a more engaged public who know how the money gets spent. How candidates campaign offers useful insight into how they would govern.

When done poorly, this approach drives interest in the “insider” narrative and prioritizes drama over substance.

The Issues

Story frames: Policy Options, Descriptions, Analysis of Impact, Prognostication: Pundits & Panels, Fact Checks.

When done well, this gives minor candidates a platform, educates the public and elevates unconventional ideas.

When done poorly, it oversimplifies complicated questions, normalizes wild ideas, puts the audience to sleep or doesn’t help voters see what it means to them.

Voter Centric

Story frames: Diner Safari, Rally Recap, Demographic Monolith, Voter Profiles, Policy Op-eds, The Undecided: What Are They Thinking?

When done well, this shows people thinking through tough or conflicting needs, puts a human face to the election and allows voters to understand and appreciate other places and other people unlike themselves.

When done poorly, it divides people into us and them categories, overly generalizes a demographic (#notall_____), paints a caricature or objectifies a class of voters.

User Guides

Story frames: How to Vote, Where and When to Vote, Who is on the Ballot, Policy Guides (What Candidates Stand For), Voter Information in Various Languages.

When done well, it allows voters to confidently participate in elections.

When done poorly, it increases confusion and doesn’t help people figure out how they can vote.

The Citizens Agenda

Story frames: What Voters Want Candidates to be Discussing, How Candidates Answer and Respond.

When done well, the citizens agenda approach allows voters head to polls more informed, empowered and feeling ownership over their choices. It expands the demographics of who your newsroom listens to, who you serve and builds civic power within communities. This style is agile, changing when voter needs change.

When done poorly, it just focuses on one core audience and is not responsive to changing voter information needs, or is lip-service that is not really taken to candidates.

So, what’s your vote this election season?

Download our guide for more details on the resource lift and utility to both the public and the newsroom for each style, and use our worksheets to plan your coverage.

P.S. The categories of coverage types listed above were made in collaboration with the attendees of an elections unconference session at Newsgeist 2019 (thanks y’all!). If you feel we missed an important category or have something to add, please reach out to: info@thecitizensagenda.org.

--

--

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