Elections 2020: Framing Your Story
Published October 2020
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.
Races don’t end until the ballots are counted.
Based on recent news events, journalists can anticipate potential misinformation may be spread about when, how, and whether legally valid ballots should be counted. Here are a set of facts about November 3 and beyond:
- An increase in mail-in and absentee voting means winners will not be clear in many races on November 3, as some states are unable to begin counting ballots until November 3, which could take days to complete.
- The current administration has hampered the functioning of the postal system meant to handle the increase in mail-in voting, causing delivery delays.
- President Trump has baselessly called legal voting methods fraudulent and has alluded to intentions not to concede if Joe Biden is elected.
- The possibility that President Trump and/or the GOP will try to throw the decision to the now-conservative majority Supreme Court if the election is close
- President Trump has tweeted we “must have a final total on November 3rd” and made similar, false statements to the press that counting past November 3 is illegal, despite actual state election laws and what we know about the likelihood that counts will take longer.
- In a recent SCOTUS decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote: “Under the US Constitution, the state courts do not have a blank check to rewrite state election laws for federal elections” and suggested that “chaos and suspicions of impropriety” could ensue if “thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election.” In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan argued that “there are no results to ‘flip’ until all valid votes are counted.” This suggests a potential SCOTUS position on overruling state courts in their own election laws, which could affect how mail ballots are counted.
- Axios reported November 1 that Trump plans to prematurely declare victory on November 3. He denied the allegation, but did say he plans to take legal action to end ballot counts on November 3.
Election coverage must not legitimize ending ballot counts early (as in, changing the timeline once voters have begun voting) or amplify partisan narratives that seek to delegitimize counting ballots after November 3, as U.S. elections have long been finalized after “Election Day.” Attempts to end legal ballot counts before results are finalized or toss out legally placed votes is anti-democratic and should not be treated as simply a partisan “strategy” or “tactic.” Election reporting should be pro-democracy and explain to audiences that races are not won or lost until ballots are counted.
- A race cannot be “flipped,” “taken,” or “stolen” until the ballots are counted. Do not use this language to describe how the counting of mail or absentee ballots may affect final results in comparison to in-person, day-of voting. Implying that a race is decided by which votes are counted first equates when votes are counted with either legitimacy or nefarious intent. Instead, explain that the final result is unclear due to uncounted ballots.
- Use terms like “in the lead” or “ahead” with extreme caution. If you aren’t able to confidently call a race, don’t use terms that prematurely imply a result. Instead, if current vote tallies are not yet definitive, explain why, note the number of uncounted ballots that remain, and emphasize that the race isn’t over until all ballots are counted.
- Refute premature (and thus false) claims of victory and explain when races can be called. Sharing false claims by political actors, especially out of context or standing alone as a headline or chyron, is not journalism, it is spreading misinformation.
- Begin every headline and lead paragraph with the true statement before explaining why a public statement is false. 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.
- Emphasize impacts on voter enfranchisement and democracy, not the horse race. Don’t refer to changes made to election laws (to make voting easier, to take those options away, or to change how or when votes are counted) as “wins” or “losses” for either party. Couch them in terms of how they affect whose votes count.
- Remember the power of repetition. It’s difficult to keep up with the news storm that is an election. In breaking through to your audience, repetition can be your enemy or your friend. Repeating lies in order to debunk them can actually give the lies more salience. But don’t be afraid to share important information with your audiences more than once — folks who aren’t glued to their TVs or feeds all Election Week will appreciate recaps.
Election Week means a change of pace.
It is unlikely that enough ballots can be counted by the night of November 3, 2020 or early the next morning to declare clear winners in all races. The events of the past several weeks as noted above mean it is reasonable to prepare for the possibility that the current administration or supporters might claim the lack of clear immediate winners proves baseless claims of voter fraud or even victory.
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.
- Slower is not 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.
- 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.
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.
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 225,000+ 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
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