High-stakes events like general elections are demanding times for reporters and confusing ones for audiences. It’s crucial that journalists think deeply about how to frame their elections stories far in advance of November so that their work is both fair and useful.
This is a living and learning document that will be updated regularly with advice and guidance from around the web and we want you to contribute. Send your suggestions and recommendations to Reframe editor Aubrey Nagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Election Week means a change of pace.
The 2020 election will be unlike previous elections, thanks to:
- A pandemic that has led to the closing and reallocating of some polling places due to social distancing policies and a shortage of poll workers in some states
- An increase in mail-in and absentee voting
- President Trump baselessly calling legal voting methods fraudulent and alluding to intentions not to concede the election if Joe Biden is elected
- An administration that has hampered the functioning of the postal system meant to handle the increase in mail-in voting
It is unlikely that enough ballots will be counted by the night of November 3, 2020 or early the next morning to declare clear winners in all races. The president’s false statements about voter fraud and warnings of a “rigged” election, combined with floating the idea of not accepting election results, means it is reasonable to prepare for the possibility that his administration or supporters might claim the lack of clear immediate winners proves these baseless claims.
Journalists should use the language and framing of their reporting to set expectations for the pace of this year’s election and reinforce the validity of a voting process that takes longer than usual.
- It’s Election Week, not Election Day. Use this framing to reinforce the idea that results may not be available the night of November 3 or even early the next day. Consider using “Voting Day” to distinguish November 3 in this context.
- Slow is not necessarily incorrect. Reporting that makes the slower-than-usual processing of ballots sound inherently incorrect or corrupt (instead of potentially expected and reasonable) sows doubt in the democratic process.
- Use “delays” and “confusion” carefully. We know that counting mail-in ballots is a time-consuming process. However, while being slow or late is the denotation of a “delay,” the common connotation is that a delay occurs as a result of some external action. Thus, using “delay” to describe the expected pace of an event incorrectly associates it with intention or interference. So, “delay” may be appropriate for how changes to the Postal Service could mean some ballots go uncounted, but may not be appropriate to describe the slow counting of those ballots.
Similarly, “confusion” should be used when there is true disagreement about something like the result of a vote, not to describe something like the expected time-consuming process of counting mail-in ballots or the inability to call races on November 3 or early November 4.
- Alternative examples: Mail-in voting means longer ballot count or Expect slower pace for election results.
- Refute any early claims of victory. The longer a race goes on without a final winner, the more time each party has to claim they’ve won. This should be refuted early and often with information about when victory may truly be declared. Thanks to the cognitive bias of the primacy effect, which gives information we learn first extra weight in our minds, inaccurate narratives are difficult to correct once absorbed. It is not enough for newsrooms to simply wait for an accurate call if false information is circulating.
- When using visuals of long voting lines, emphasize context. It’s critical that American voters understand that long lines at the polls are a form of voter suppression. However, presenting photos and videos of these long lines without that context might only serve to convince audiences that they don’t have the time to vote. Balance both messages by sharing wait times and emphasizing voting rights.
- TV coverage of Bush v. Gore is a scary reminder of what can go wrong on election night
- The Bush-Gore Recount Is an Omen for 2020
- 8 Big Reasons Election Day 2020 Could Be a Disaster
- ‘It’s 8 P.M. on Election Day.’ Experts Share Their Nightmare Scenarios.
End the horse-race metaphors.
“A relentless emphasis on the cynical game of politics threatens public life itself, by implying day after day that the political sphere is mainly an arena in which ambitious politicians struggle for dominance, rather than a structure in which citizens can deal with worrisome collective problems.”
— James Fallows, Breaking the News
This is far from the first reporting guide to expound on the harm done to American democracy by political coverage that treats elections like horse races and describes the inner workings of a presidential campaign like a reality show. But it certainly bears repeating, because it is all too easy to slip into these metaphors.
Describing the system we use to solve our problems as a game or sport for politicians to play can make audiences cynical about their role in democracy or make them feel helpless to make a difference. The antithesis of this is reporting that frames the election as the process for deciding who voters believe will provide solutions to the issues we face, and describes campaigns as ways to convince voters that their candidate is capable of executing that vision.
- Drop the language of “wins,” “losses,” “worries,” and “battles.” Describing events only in terms of their effect on an election scoreboard erases the actual real-world consequences of those events, abstracting and downplaying the real people they impact.
- Describe “the issues” as the people’s issues, not partisan ones. Referring to the problems and solutions politicians focus on solely as “talking points” and “campaign issues” effectively erases voters and residents from the democratic process.
- Frame disputes over the election process as problems for democracy, not candidates. Describing the actions of politicians as things their opponents are “worried” about or are causing them “headaches” in the context of winning elections, rather than issues residents of a democracy might be concerned with, emphasizes the game of politics over its real-world consequences.
- The Citizens Agenda Guide to Elections Coverage
- Opinion: How Objectivity Can Make Audiences Cynical about Politics—and Journalism
- Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy by James Fallows
Be clear about what information will change.
All that we know about the pace of the 2020 ballot counts is that it will be longer than usual. Otherwise, it’s difficult to predict, and will be different in each state and local race. That means it’s more important than ever to set expectations for your audience about when information will be available and — most critically — when and how it will change.
- Always note when, how, and why you expect information to change. Rapidly changing information without context can spur distrust and confusion. In an information overload environment, don’t assume audiences will find updates they didn’t even know to expect.
- Answer audience questions in advance. Create a post or segment that explains how you expect to report out results, i.e. your internal pace and how you’ll use social media or live coverage. Link to and/or repeat it frequently. (Hat tip to Trusting News for pointing us to Colorado Public Radio’s FAQ about their elections reporting plans.)
- Make updates easy to find. Include boilerplate language with all of your Election Week reporting that points to where audiences can find up-to-date information.
- Give all polls and predictions context. The distribution model of modern media — social feeds, short news segments, fleeting radio reports — requires a lot of simplification of complex ideas, polls and predictions among them. This often leads to headlines and framings that make political predictions sound a lot more certain than they are. Consider including boilerplate language with reporting on polls and predictions that explain what they really are: largely planning tools for political campaigns, not crystal balls that audiences should form their voting plan or opinions around.
Additionally, editors should consider how poll coverage may actually impact election outcomes: there is evidence to suggest polling that shows one candidate is far ahead of another may actually create lower voter turnout for that candidate.
Emphasize COVID-19 as context.
No part of the 2020 election will exist outside of the continuing pandemic, and thus no reporting on the election should ignore this context. To do otherwise is to misrepresent what is at stake.
- Don’t normalize 200,000+ deaths. The excess deaths caused by the coronavirus must ground all reporting on candidates’ decisions and proposals on everything from healthcare to education.
- Emphasize that many voting procedures have changed. Voters may be surprised to learn of mail-in ballot efforts or social distancing measures required at the polls. Reporting on these changes should emphasize that they are, in fact, changes. A voter very familiar with their polling place who has seen no indication that it has moved may not be attracted to headline like, “Here’s how to find your polling place.”
- Voting procedures aren’t changed “amid fears.” This phrase, “amid fears,” implies that it isn’t rational to fear a deadly virus and that changes to voting procedures made in accordance with public health information were made based emotions instead.
- Explain how COVID-19 exacerbated voters’ problems. Unemployment, racial wealth gaps, healthcare debates, and partisan polarization all existed before January 2020, though they have all been impacted by the pandemic.
More Election Reporting Resources
- American Press Institute: Trusted Elections Network Guide to Covering Elections and Misinformation
- The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation
- Source Hacking: Media Manipulation in Practice
- Election SOS (Hearken x American Press Institute)
- Journalists’ Toolbox: Election 2020
- Essential Resources for the US Election: A Field Guide for Journalists on the Frontlines
- Reporting Recipe: How to Report on Voting by Mail