Your election plan is toast: Why the 2020 vote demands a different approach

What’s worse than being unprepared for The Big Story? Thinking you are prepared — and finding out you were terribly wrong.

Ben Smith recently penned a feature for the New York Times detailing the ways in which the media nationwide is unprepared for the unique challenges of November’s election. Conversations I’ve had with local TV news managers lead me to believe local TV news managers should be just as worried, but aren’t.

Maybe a quick quiz is the best way to assess your newsroom readiness. How many of these elements are staples of your well-worn ‘election playbook’?

  • Your logistics planning has started, but the key coverage push starts Oct. 1
  • Your editorial planning focuses on “key races” and “key issues”
  • Logistics — matching reporters to races, figuring out vehicles, live feeds, crew assignments — takes up much of election planning meetings
  • You are planning on and for a single “Election Night” of coverage (versus days or weeks )
  • You will have a pundit panel of political expertise to add meaning and context
  • Your “results” planning is focused on making sure your data feeds/scraping of local/state sites is working and feeds quickly to the website and on-air
  • You’re feeling confident because you have a team that’s “done this before!”

There’s every reason to believe that NONE of these historic “truths” of the playbook for local broadcast election coverage will be as relevant this year.

For example, with the pandemic-driven shift toward mail-in voting, local newsrooms can’t wait until October to begin covering “How to Vote” questions; there are urgent questions around vote-by-mail and mail delivery integrity that need reporting now.

Likewise, with the Republican and Democratic national conventions as examples, how many candidates or issue races will hold large, in-person election-night rallies or watch parties? So all those traditional conversations about logistics now morph into Zoom/streaming plans.

And, perhaps most importantly, among broadcasters who specialize in “events” and “live,” it is almost a certainty now that “Election Night” with its flashy graphics and satisfying payoff of a winner and loser…will NOT conclude on Election Night, and we could be in for Election Week or election month. How prepared is your newsroom ‘culture’ for ambiguity, uncertainty and delay? How well have you prepared your audience?

The good news is there’s no dearth of compelling storylines for local broadcasters to pursue. Missing from the traditional election playbook are a host of new, urgent challenges newsrooms must now prepare for, including:

  • Voting (in person/by mail): FAQ, registration, verification and vote-counting, and disinformation efforts to discredit the reliability of the vote
  • Mail delivery and delays, mail tracking, local impact of USPS policy changes
  • Election ‘integrity’ monitoring, and plans for Election Day mis- and disinformation efforts
  • State/County preparedness for dual-track (in person and by mail) election
  • Impact of COVID on volunteer election workers / staff shortages for counting ballots
  • Safe spacing plans / potential for long waits at in-person voting booths
  • Unequal access to in-person voting / voter ID requirements / suppression
  • Fact-checking, especially on social media, in advance and on Election Day
  • How, why and when to complete a provisional ballot
  • Preparing both news staff and audience for the possibility of Election “week”/’month’
  • Legal/constitutional experts to report on vote certification, contested vote scenarios
  • How to put “results” in context on election night when many ballots won’t yet be counted

Of course, there’s also all the logistics work of adapting to what will likely be an all-virtual approach to covering candidates, measures and party headquarters on Election Night. So how does a newsroom tackle all that? It can be helpful to break it down into things to do now, next and later.


NOW: August and September

•Accountability reporting on mailed-ballot count preparedness

•Investigative reporting on local USPS mail delays

•Combatting voter suppression through FAQ: How to insure your vote counts, and is counted

•Newsroom training to detect, expose, but not amplify mis/dis-information

•Engaging with the audience to ID / answer their questions and meet their needs

Proactive role in ‘solving’ predictable problems?

In-person voting: Activate a community of volunteers to ensure adequate staffing

Mail-in ballots: Accountability reporting to ensure adequate vote-counting staff

•Identifying a different kind of expert for election-night pundit panels (constitutional law scholars, state government authority experts, misinformation/fact-checkers)

NEXT: In the month leading up to elections

•Internal “War Games”: Brainstorm potential worst case manipulations

•Newsroom prep for the Contested Election

•Preparing newsrooms & audiences for “Election Month”

•Collaboration with other state newsrooms

LATER: Election night and through November

•Monitoring election fidelity

•Sifting/Sorting: Info, Misinfo, Disinfo (Mechanism for deciding: Report or not?)

•How to contextualize Election-Night results, given the possibility that a large volume of mail-in ballots might not yet be counted? And, how to adapt the practice of “calling” results, given likely delays in counting mail-in ballots?

•Interviewing experts in Constitutional Law/State ‘process’ requirements

•How to sustain coverage, and attention, over days/weeks?

•Discuss, and have plans for, the worst worst-case scenarios (contested result; protests; police/military involvement)


Fortunately, there’s help available. In response to the challenges to election integrity, a number of organizations have made it their mission to support participatory democracy. Among them, they offer case studies, online guides, and in some cases free newsroom training.

First Draft specializes in helping newsrooms identify (and not amplify) mis- and disinformation, with a suite of checklists and trainings that are available on demand, online and even tailored to your newsroom.

Election SOS helps newsrooms develop strategies to meaningfully engage with their local audience to insure relevant, impactful coverage.

Electionland works to ensure eligible voters are able to vote and be counted; Electionland helps newsrooms collaborate on issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

Fact-Checking is already a pillar of local journalism but will be even more crucial in the lead-up to November. Cronkite News Lab has previously profiled efforts by local broadcasters like “VERIFY” by TEGNA; nationally, Politifact by the Poynter Institute has been providing free political fact-checking, including its popular Truth-O-Meter, since 2007.

Preparing for these many scenarios might sound overwhelming. But local newsrooms should draw confidence from the remarkable adaptations they’ve made in response to the pandemic. Our commitment to inform our communities demands the same innovation and adaptation as we prepare for the November election. Perhaps, unlike the rest of 2020, Election Day will go smoothly, we’ll enjoy our newsroom pizza, and we’ll go home by midnight having reported reliable results, and aired victory and concession speeches. But if you’ve read this far, you’re not counting on that.

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