Five ways to cover the election from the ground up

Joellen Easton
Business Development Manager
Public Insight Network

Covering elections and their run-up can, at its worst, resemble the end-of-year holidays: Rote. Boring. Lather, rinse, repeat. Imagine at a news meeting, an editor tees up the now-perennial question: “How do we want to get voices from the public into our coverage?” Even in this age of participatory media, someone is sure to pipe up, “How about some vox pop?”

That’s so 20th-century.

Today, creative and ambitious journalists scour social platforms for new voices and trends. They assemble panels of undecided voters from the community and invite them into the newsroom – in person! – for election-watching parties. They interact in the comment spaces on their websites to find new stories. They crowd-source maps. They encourage the conversation itself to be the story. They use every tool at their disposal to find out what issues matter to people, and how those issues are playing out in voters’ lives. They tell those stories across multiple platforms. They collaborate with each other and with their audiences.

So with the election less than a week away, the time is right to look around the country to see how PIN newsrooms are bringing public insight into their election-related reporting. As I compiled projects, they naturally filtered into five types of reporting activity. So, voila: A list:

1.) Convene stakeholder groups and let them (gasp!) guide your reporting.

The Charlotte Observer and KUOW (in Seattle) convened panels of voters to inform their coverage.

The Observer’s panel watched each debate and then sent its feedback to the newsroom. KUOW’s approach was to convene a panel for the station’s local talk program, The Conversation, in which sources discuss the issues that matter most to them, where they stand on those issues, and how their beliefs and values factor in.

KUOW’s PIN journalist Carolyn Adolph adds that “in the pre-interviews, it emerged that sources had found that the election had turned out to be a poor venue to discuss the restructuring of the jobs economy wrought by the last recession and what that restructuring means for the future. Having sources of so many political stripes interested by the same question made this panel discussion a stand-out.”

(I’ll add the link to this post once the episode airs.)


2.) Get personal about the experience of voting.

Both KUHF in Houston and NHPR in New Hampshire have asked PIN sources and others in their community about their voting experiences.

The St. Louis Beacon asked why people did – or didn’t – vote in the primary election.  So far, the talk is all about early voting and primaries, but sources already engaged in talking with the newsroom about their experience are likely to come in handy as poll-watchers on Election Day.


3.) Find out what issues matter to constituents – and follow those issues.

This one might be obvious, but it’s so easy to NOT do that it’s important to talk about. And it’s one of the best ways to steer your coverage away from the beat-the-dead-horserace stylings to which we’re all accustomed. It can lead to reporting that resonates for voters – and that voters want to share with each other.

4.) Use a gimmick.  Just don’t overdo it.

From time to time, a PIN newsroom will come up with a simple device to capture the imagination and solicit creative and thoughtful responses from sources.  Once proven, either that newsroom or we at APM encourage other partners to try it, and sometimes it catches on.

In the past year, a number of newsrooms have produced variations on a query asking respondents to sum up their experience with a topic in five or six words or less.

Colorado Public Radio, KPBS in San Diego, Changing Gears, Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television have all used this device to great effect. They’ve all received a strong response, and gathered insightful and creative material that’s easy to edit, and radio- and web-friendly, to boot.


5.) Collaborate. It’s easier than you think. 

Funders, industry conferences and thought leaders talk a lot about collaboration. And it can sound like there’s a big capital-C on the word. But it doesn’t have to be a big deal. In fact, it’s usually better if it’s not.

Ask yourself and your potential collaborators these four questions to test your project’s collaboration potential:

  1. Do we have a shared goal?
  2. Do we each have something unique to contribute?
  3. Is each person’s or organization’s responsibility clear?
  4. Are our expectations realistic?

If each of those questions can be answered with a YES and a clear WHAT, go for it (setting aside money as an issue for now). And, as the Knight Foundation’s director of journalism and media innovation, John Bracken, warns, don’t force it.  Forced collaboration = collaboration fail. Really. Don’t even bother. Here are a few examples of simple collaborations among newsrooms that are working well. (We’ll go into more detail post-election.)

SCPR in Los Angeles and WNYC in New York worked together on a pre-conventions project called “What’s Your Issue?” They invited members of the public to submit stories of how they came to their perspective on the issues that matter to them, record their own voices, and generate online “issue badges.”  Each newsroom maintains its own website of local sources talking about what matters. SCPR’s site is and WNYC’s is

OPB asks: What issues are most important to those under the age of 30?

For their election week reporting from the U.S., the BBC World Service’s Newsday program will broadcast from the living rooms of American families in Phoenix, Seattle and Denver. PIN partners (KJZZ, KUOW and CPR, respectively) in those cities queried the network as a resource to find families interested in participating, and to ask sources what’s at stake this election year that will directly affect their lives.

Finally, along the West Coast, a number of PIN newsrooms have been interviewing young voters to find out what issues are driving their vote, producing audio postcards for air and online.

Each participant used SoundCloud to post their audio files, which enabled their work to be easily shared. Participating stations are SCPRKQED (San Francisco), KPLU and Oregon Public Broadcasting.

You can find a compilation of tracks from all four newsrooms right on SoundCloud.

Update (Nov. 5 @2:47 p.m.): KQED’s Ian Hill has described the Young Voters project in more detail on MediaShift, including the lessons from the project about the importance of keeping bureaucracy away from collaboration.



Joellen Easton Business Development Manager
Public Insight Network
Joellen Easton gets to chart the next mission for PIN: New ways to use the network for meeting information needs, with new partners and new technologies. All shiny objects cross her desk.

Her background is in anthropology, and she has produced for WGBH, PRI’s The World, and as a freelancer. She first worked with PIN at Marketplace as a PIN analyst for four years, and after that as partners manager for three years, leading the training and support team. She is degreed from Tufts and MIT.