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Why equity should be at the center of 2020 elections coverage

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August 26, 2020

Racial equity is the defining issue of this year, of this generation, and as a result, of the 2020 U.S. elections. Nationwide uprisings and protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have demanded system changes to policing and incited a reckoning within newsrooms about their own systemic racism. As the journalists in these newsrooms increasingly turn their attention to election coverage, it’s important that they keep the focus on equity and seek ways to center historically marginalized communities. We need to hear directly from the people who are most affected by these issues.

It’s not a moment too soon. Racist conspiracy theories are now circulating to attack the credibility of vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris — the first Black female vice presidential candidate as well as the first Asian American.

And layered on top are the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to disenfranchise voters that disproportionately affect communities of color. Voter suppression has only increased since the pandemic, with deliberate attempts by Republicans and conservative commentators to limit mail-in voting, fear-monger, and sow uncertainty about voters’ ability to get to the polls and for their votes to count.

For all these intersecting reasons, it’s important to understand why traditional election coverage falls short on serving historically marginalized communities and what we can do to make a change in 2020.

Why Traditional Election Coverage Fails

The United States’ long tradition of election coverage relies heavily on pundits and polling: “horse race” coverage filled with stats and numbers that make audiences feel they have an insider read on who will come out ahead. But what about the issues people are facing in their everyday lives? To figure out what people care about, mainstream coverage relies heavily on polling, which rarely provides the full picture. Polling before an election often takes non-representative samples of “likely voters” (e.g., leaving out new voters), and can leave out significant portions of the population due to language barriers or differing communication methods. The same is true for exit polling: responses depend on who is asking the question, and how, to whom, and whether the person feels comfortable responding. Traditional coverage, particularly cable and broadcast news, also relies on the perspective of pundits as experts. These pundits historically do not represent the lived experiences of other Americans — particularly Americans who aren’t rich, white, male, and close to power.

There’s a Better Way

Media scholar Jay Rosen has been writing about alternatives to these traditional practices for quite a while. He proposes a straightforward approach: ask voters what they think candidates should be talking about in the election, whether national, state, or local.

Ask voters what they think candidates should be talking about in the election, whether national, state, or local.

By February 2020, we saw the success and potential of this approach in real life, and Democracy Fund made a grant to this collaborative effort to launch what’s now called Election SOS: a non-partisan project that trains journalists to provide election coverage that serves community information needs using the citizens agenda approach and tried-and-true principles of engagement and trust-building.

Election SOS deepens and expands on The Citizens Agenda guide by providing essential training, guidance, and coaching to journalists on pressing topics like fighting misinformation, building trust, and protecting election integrity. They are partnering with a wide network of experts in journalism and within specific issue areas, including the American Press Institute (fiscal sponsor), First Draft News, ProPublica, PEN America, Troll Busters, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, Vote.org, and More in Common — just to name a few.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Read about over 20 newsrooms who have put the citizens agenda into action thanks to Election SOS training. Some highlights:

  • Vox Media published a video explainer on horse race coverage and invited viewers to inform their future coverage.
  • The Capital Times in Madison, WI is developing a People’s Agenda in both English and ​Spanish​ so that the community can set its own priorities.
  • Washington City Paper developed a voter guide for the 2020 DC Democratic primary. A grant from the Solutions Journalism Network allowed them to reach out to readers and incorporate responses from 200 people to inform questions for candidates.
  • WBEZ in Chicago created and published a citizens agenda titled ​12 Questions For The Candidates In Illinois’ 6th Congressional District​.”

These engagement practices are an important part of challenging the status quo of typical elections coverage. And newsrooms must continue to make an intentional effort to get input from historically marginalized people within the communities they serve, or engaged journalism will replicate the same inequities we see in traditional reporting.

What Funders Can Do

Projects like Election SOS are critical to ensuring that journalists and newsrooms are prepared to meet the information needs of their communities, now through Election Week and beyond. Funders can further support this work by:

  • Investing in newsrooms directly to publish election coverage that centers the information needs of communities.
  • Supporting news outlets led by and serving diverse and historically marginalized communities to support their elections and pandemic reporting. (You can use the DEI Tracker to identify outlets and organizations.)
  • Funding collaborative efforts such as Your Voice Ohio, a network of over 40 news organizations publishing community-centered election coverage and holding community engagement events across the state (now virtual).

The decisions that voters make will impact a wide variety of critical issues facing our democracy, and funders must help ensure that our electorate reflects the diversity of our nation. One crucial part of this is ensuring every person, especially those from historically marginalized communities that have been excluded for far too long, has the information they need to vote.

Thanks to Jessica Clark.