The two-minute drill

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from October 26 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and shout-outs to journalists statewide. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Time to go into your hurry-up offense. There’s a lot to do in the next 13 days.

That’s a slightly ironic metaphor, because of course, elections absolutely are not games. They’re the most important exercise of our rights in a free society, and the participants need solid information to inform their decisions, not political handicapping, rankings and predictions.

I asked several smart people for their advice on what folks in the news media in North Carolina need to be doing in the days remaining before voting ends November 8:

Melanie Sill, longtime journalist, founder of this newsletter and founding executive director of the NC Local News Workshop:

Coverage matters, and many people are just tuning in. Make it easy for them to get up to speed and offer help for those who have heard mostly partisan messaging as well as those who might not know beyond a couple of races.

  1. Focus original journalism on daily information that helps people choose, not on polls or predicting. Along with info on voting, offer substantive coverage on candidates and issues — including correcting and pointing out misinformation in political ads.
  2. Make that information easy to find and use, promote it heavily, and point people to the best information, whether it’s yours or from others. 
  3. Be on the side of voters: champion their interests, solicit questions and answer them, and tell them what you’re doing and why.

Deborah Holt Noel, producer at PBS North Carolina, host of Black Issues Forum:

The best thing journalists can do is provide the facts about the candidates. I’ve seen political beat-downs all over network television and YouTube, in the form of campaign ads boldly dropping half-truths, misleading interpretations, and outright lies. Even school children are subjected to this content as the ads run indiscriminately all day long. Even though I’ve made my choices, I’ve found myself sifting through fact-finding resources to understand what basis any of these ads use for their claims. I rely on the reporting of credible journalists, those who don’t use a cafeteria-style reporting that dishes out a select menu of facts but rather without sensation lay out the facts and allow readers and listeners to discern. Because North Carolina is pivotal to the national outcome, journalists and news providers should prioritize informing voters about the records of candidates on issues of consequence in various categories, like education, civil rights, inflation, environment, criminal justice, and health care. 

Another thing journalists can do for their audiences is provide space for questions. Provide Q&A time with local political scientists and academicians from area universities and colleges — public and private, large and small. Finally, local news sources need to promote themselves so that listeners and viewers know they exist, know where to find them, and know how to plug in. 

Rick Henderson, former editor of Carolina Journal and former publisher of the Deregulator and Social Fabric newsletters:

I imagine every writer or outlet has provided explainers (with links) about requesting absentee ballots, early voting hours and locations, and same-day registration. Right? Aside from that, I’d urge journalists to highlight no more than one or two competitive local races in which the outcome matters. It could be for General Assembly, but more likely it’d be for mayor, city council, county commission, or school board. Do a deep dive into the issues and the candidates. These office-holders are your neighbors. They will affect your daily lives. They will (or should) pay attention to their constituents. And a few votes often decide winners and losers.

Jessica Huseman, editorial director of Votebeat; journalist and educator:

Be careful about who you quote and how. Lean towards only quoting actual election administrators employed by the county or the state when discussing how and where to vote. If you are debunking misinformation, create a sandwich, as in: You have heard a lie. This is the lie. Here is evidence that has convinced me, and should convince you, that this is a lie. Never quote misinformation first, and try not to quote it directly or link to its source. 

Chris Cooper, political science professor and director of the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University; Zoom master (see below):

Process, process, process. The vast majority of voters have decided how they will cast their vote, and those who haven’t have more of voter guides and candidate questionnaires available to them than there are UNC alums mourning the loss of Crook’s Corner. What voters don’t have access to is information about how votes are collected, how votes are counted, and how votes are reported. Preparing voters for what is to come could have a large, positive impact on how North Carolinians view American democracy. For example, on election night early votes will be reported first, giving some citizens the false impression that the Democrats are “up.” Over the course of the night, Republican vote share will increase — this will not be a “red wave” nor will it be a sign of malfeasance. It’s a function of process. Similarly, after election night, some candidates will call for recounts in close elections. This isn’t a signal that they are not respecting democracy; it’s part of the process. Some localities will report before others. This isn’t a sign of foul play, but is — you guessed it — a function of process. If journalists can help prepare voters and citizens for the process details that determine what will happen on election night and soon after, they’ll prepare citizens to be better consumers of the electoral process and less likely to be led astray by self-serving rhetoric. 

Issac Bailey, James K. Batten professor of public policy at Davidson College; journalist, columnist and Nieman fellow:

Journalists must speak clearly that we are in a new phase of this democracy, complete with echoes of the past. Jan. 6, 2021, wasn’t quite like what happened in Wilmington in 1898, but the similarities — and aftermath — are too discomforting to ignore. The economy, reproductive rights and the like are extremely important. But if we don’t make it clear to our audiences the importance of maintaining this democracy from the threat we saw reveal itself on Jan. 6, and since, we would have failed at our jobs.

  1. Israel Balderas, assistant professor of journalism at Elon University; member of the Society of Professional Journalists board and chair of its Legal Defense Fund; veteran broadcast journalist:

 As someone who covered local, state and national elections, my best advice to reporters out on the campaign trail is to focus on the useful news coverage voters trust you to deliver. An audience-centric approach to reporting, as opposed to reporting on what candidates have to say, leads to empowering community understanding and engagement of the issues that are important to citizens.

Jane Elizabeth, media consultant, educator and longtime journalist; former managing editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun:

Actually, these final couple of weeks would be a crucial time to reach people who aren’t your audience — not only your non-subscribers, but those who generally don’t access news sites at all. As a final push for democracy, try this: 

  1. Not everyone can pay for your content. Remove paywalls on your site until preliminary election results are in, at least.
  2. Not everyone is a fluent English-speaker. Translate and distribute key election coverage in your community’s other prevalent languages. 
  3. Take your show on the road. Hold informal Q&As and other events at places you rarely visit — including virtual venues where people are likely to get their (mis)information from hacks and partisans.

Resources and work of interest:

  • The weekly pop-up election edition of American Press Institute’s Need to Know newsletter is devoted this week to a daunting challenge: “listening to those who don’t trust you or might believe false narratives about the election.”
  • There are lots of great voter guides out there, but I really like this one because it’s so complete and easy to use: Lilly Knoepp’s voter guide for Blue Ridge Public Radio helps Western North Carolina voters with how and where to vote, the races they’ll be deciding, and the platforms of the candidates, with help from Smoky Mountain News, The News and Observer’s Project 170, The League of Women Voters and others.
  • Some preliminary research at Stanford University: What drives American voters?

From Dean Drescher, her capstone project at EducationNC (where I’m an editorial advisor): Everything you’d want to know about all of the school board races in North Carolina. (Dean, best of luck. We’ll sorely miss you.)

NC Local News Workshop