Key takeaways for covering the 2020 U.S. election

Oct 16, 2020 in Specialized Topics
Masks and mail-in ballots

Covering elections can vary significantly from one cycle to another. But a global pandemic, heightened polarization and the spread of misinformation have turned the 2020 U.S. presidential election into an unprecedented event difficult for journalists to prepare for. From their inability to travel to daily attacks on their profession, reporters have had to adapt.

In an IJNet-Muck Rack webinar, Carrie Budoff Brown, editor of Politico, and Bricio Segovia, White House correspondent for Mexico’s MVS Noticias delved into the challenges journalists face this election cycle. They explored the difficulties of reporting for a foreign audience, the importance of carving out unique angles within over-covered stories, and best practices to counter misinformation.



Here are some key takeaways:

On learning from past elections 

The panel agreed that expanding your source network was a key lesson learned from the 2016 election. 

Segovia emphasized the importance of talking to people from varied backgrounds, with dissenting points of views and experiences, to be able to paint a fair representation of the country. “Washington, D.C. is a bubble that doesn't represent the whole country, so travel as much as you can. Talk to people as diverse as you can find so you can have different points of view and explain to your audience what’s happening in the country as a whole,” he said. 

Brown, who covered Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008 and served previously as Politico’s White House correspondent, advised journalists to stay skeptical at all times, and to refrain from reporting an end result they might assume will come to pass. “I always tell my reporters to test your assumptions,” she said 

Brown added that it’s important for reporters to cultivate an array of contacts to tap into for their reporting. “You need a diverse source network — geographically, professionally, racially, ethnically,” she said. This will help ensure your reporting is both well-informed and free from unintended blindspots. “When you approach stories, you have to cast a wider net just to make sure that you are not caught in an echo chamber. Confirmation bias can creep in for a national election like this one.”

[Read more: Election reporting lessons from the Dominican Republic and Haiti]

On covering U.S. elections for a primarily non-U.S. audience

An award-winning international news anchor who has reported from over 30 countries throughout his career, Segovia said foreign correspondents need to be able to translate critical language and cultural concepts. “The basics of journalism and of being a correspondent is trying to explain things that are usually hard to understand, as simple as you can,” he said. 

This task has been more difficult under the Trump administration. “When the President tweets, he uses a lot of slang, a lot of puns that are extremely hard to translate to [...] a Spanish-speaking audience. The essence of the message can get lost,” he said. 

Segovia also noted that, as a one-person team, he is able to have more control over the story he’s reporting. However, this also comes with its own set of challenges. He often cannot report from the campaign trail, for example, because he has to cover the president in Washington, D.C. This alone makes it more challenging to report on both sides of the campaign.

On carving out unique angles 

Brown has spent several years building up Politico’s reporting capacity in several critical battleground states. The newsroom now has official offices in seven states and reporters in more than a dozen. She has made use of this unique advantage during this election cycle. Half of Politico’s national political reporters are lead reporters based in Florida, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and across New England. 

“These reporters are deeply sourced in these states. These aren’t reporters we picked up from Washington and put in some random state. These are reporters who have reported throughout their careers in these places,” she said. “For decades, national publications didn’t have people out in the states. I think it’s going to have to change in the future.” 

Brown urged all reporters to pursue stories someone else hasn’t yet written. “The mission and mandate of my reporters is if it has been reported, let’s not write it. Let’s find something new to say about it or wait until we do. That I think is essential for distinguishing yourself in what is a tremendously crowded media environment,” she said. 

Bricio Segovia added, “I always say that a journalist is worth what their contact list is worth.” Building your network of sources is central to finding unique stories, he said.

[Read more: Local journalists play a critical role during the pandemic]

On making sure reporting is prevailing over misinformation

Brown emphasized the importance of being nonpartisan and fact-driven to fight disinformation. “If we lead with facts, we can do our part in countering whatever is out there.” She added, “We all have this great privilege as journalists to speak to audiences, to demand answers from sources. How do we individually maintain that credibility so we can continue to do our jobs and maybe someday we turn the tide? Maybe that’s optimistic, but all we can do individually is the best damn job — to be fact-based and to put that out into the world.”

Nowadays, misinformation often comes from the White House, noted Segovia. “There is a campaign to discredit media that’s critical of the administration by calling them fake news,” he said. 

He explained that while there is a lot of noise around fact-checking, journalists have always been fact-checkers. However, in the past four years they have had to fact-check more than ever. “We can’t let the President decide the news agenda,” said Segovia. “Our job is to decide whether whatever [the White House is] pushing in the news agenda is relevant. If it’s not, just don’t report it.” 

The panel agreed that media literacy is an essential step toward countering misinformation. “We need to educate the new generations of news consumers. What’s the role of a journalist? Why is journalism important? Why is it important to check several sources?” said Segovia. Brown added, “I don’t think it’s ever too late for media literacy. I do think it’s an uphill battle, though.” 

Segovia, who said he has been attacked multiple times while reporting in the U.S., noted that the public’s growing distrust of the media has led to security concerns. Still, he remains hopeful. “We need to remember there are also a lot of people who believe in us and who believe we have an essential role in society.” 

On the effects of COVID-19 on election coverage

“The world in which we lived before March in terms of how we covered the campaign is just non-existent,” said Brown. Travel is limited, as is contact with voters. Having reporters across the country, especially in swing states, is one way to compensate for the changes. “We’re relying more heavily on these reporters in the states to intensively report out what’s happening in order to give a better picture of where this race is headed nationally.”

Segovia said that COVID-19 drastically changed his work as a foreign correspondent, starting with the White House. Interaction with government officials and other reporters is limited. Access to the president is now often reserved only for the press corps, and working from the White House premises is no longer possible. 

Because Segovia is a one-person team, traveling used to be his only option for covering election-related developments in other states. During COVID, he now relies more heavily on social media to contact voters and other sources. “Social media has been this window for any journalist [...] to reach millions of people,” said Segovia. “You can find good stories through social media. You can build a great story by reaching out to people, regardless of where you are.” 

Brown cautioned that using social media, however, could lead to bias as the only people you will be talking to are the ones opting into it. “If you're in a small town or rural area, [...] I would try to go anywhere where there are still people gathering instead.”

Héloïse Hakimi Le Grand is a communications intern at ICFJ.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Tiffany Tertipes.