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How to engage audiences when reporting on elections

Si tenés sólo unos segundos, leé estas líneas:
  • For journalists, elections are one of the most important moments in our work. But not all the population is always as interested in voting as we are.
  • In this article we bring you specific recommendations so you can reach more people and involve your audience and community in your election coverage.
  • This article is part of a special with recommendations for journalists on how to cover the elections by Chequeado, IJNet, ICFJ and Factchequeado.

Covering elections in 2023 requires journalists to navigate many challenges, including polarization between political parties and audiences. How do we cut through the noise and engage with communities to understand the election topics that matter to them? 

Through my work as the engagement coordinator for KUNR Public Radio, the NPR member station for Northern Nevada, and as the partnerships strategist for Factchequeado, an initiative focused on combating mis- and disinformation in Spanish in the U.S., I have some tips and tricks to help you rethink your election season coverage strategies.

1. Highlight voters and their political values

No matter what level of elections you cover as a reporter, whether it’s local or national races, one way to break away from reporting on polarized political parties is to focus coverage on community members. Putting everyday people at the center of your reporting allows you to humanize politics during election season. 

An effective model for centering community members in your political reporting is StoryCorps’ One Small Step program. Organized by StoryCorps nationally and in partnership with local NPR member stations around the country, community members are invited to sign up to have a recorded conversation with someone in their community who they don’t know and who self-identifies with different political values. An essential element of this format is that, while the journalist is the facilitator of the conversation, the conversation is driven by the participants. Although this type of initiative aims primarily to foster constructive conversations, content can also be produced out of them with participant consent. I ran this program for KUNR Public Radio in 2021, and we packaged participant conversations to air on the radio and publish on our website.

A key takeaway I learned from using this facilitated conversation model to talk about politics is that it helps community members think through and articulate the experiences that have shaped their political values. Looking at someone as a whole person, and understanding the nuances of how they identify politically, complicates the political narrative. The participants, and I as the facilitator, saw first hand how people define their political values, without having to label everything in relation to political parties. 

You can learn more about the idea of “complicating the narrative” in this article by Amanda Ripley for the Solutions Journalism Network. 

2. Before reporting, ask community members what questions they have 

To cover topics relevant to your community, it helps to take the time and directly ask community members what they want to know when it comes to elections and the candidates running.

During the 2022 election season in Nevada at KUNR Public Radio, I ran a questionnaire form for the community using Hearken, a company that offers technology and training to newsrooms to help them engage their audience and broader community.

We included an open-ended prompt in the form, asking community members what topics, issues and questions they would like to hear about from candidates running in the state’s local elections. Running the form for six months on our website, email newsletter, and social media, we received 30 responses from the community at large. Almost 40% of the questions we received had to do with environmental concerns, such as relief from poor air quality due to wildfire smoke, or how elected officials will address water sustainability concerns. I then collected additional environmental questions from students at the University of Nevada, bringing the total number of responses to 50. 

With these questions in mind, I created a short questionnaire for candidates running in nine local races (city council, mayor and county commissioner). The result was KUNR’s 2022 Candidate Surveys on the Environment project, which gathered candidates’ responses to their community members’ top environmental concerns in one place. Reporters added fact checks and additional context to those responses, and we were transparent about which candidates chose not to respond to the survey, and their reasons why. Community members ultimately were able to use this candidate survey to inform their voting decisions before heading to the polls. 

3. Rethink strategies to engage communities that speak languages other than your outlet’s primary language of publication

When approaching or deepening your connections with new audience members, especially those who prefer languages other than your media outlet’s primary language, consider how you can frame your election content differently. This requires more than just translation. I’ve learned – and continue to remind myself – that this process takes time, too. 

It’s important to learn from the strategies that don’t work as much as the ones that are successful. For example, my team and I were less successful recruiting Spanish speakers to participate in KUNR’s One Small Step facilitated conversation program than English speakers. Assessing how the program went, I realized that this most likely had to do with how we framed the initiative when approaching our Spanish-speaking community. For example, to match conversation partners, each participant was asked to describe where they fall on the spectrum of liberal or conservative. What we learned is that those political labels had different connotations for each community member depending on their background and country of origin. 

One approach we’ve found successful at Factchequeado to engage audiences in Spanish, is to leverage strategic partnerships. Take, for instance, our 2022 election night live stream. We invited our community of media partners nationwide to participate in the six-hour program, during which the outlets shared what they were hearing and seeing on election night as they engaged with their local audiences. These partners knew what methods and channels work to reach Spanish speakers in their local communities. 

4. Resources for engaged elections coverage

If you work for a small newsroom with limited resources, seek out organizations that provide engagement coaching and other election support. Two such organizations are America Amplified and Advancing Democracy, which act as hubs bringing together media outlets working to deepen their engagement efforts around elections. 

America Amplified provided my team at KUNR Public Radio training and support to use Hearken in both English and Spanish during our 2022 election cycle coverage. Advancing Democracy provided training, individual coaching, and support to produce KUNR’s Candidate Survey on the Environment project.

To best engage with communities on political and election topics, humanize issues and make them relevant to people’s everyday lives. Talk to community members where they are about what matters to them – instead of engaging in horse race coverage – and frame your coverage as offering the community the news they need to be informed voters.


This resource is part of a toolkit on elections reporting and how to spot mis- and disinformation, produced by IJNet in partnership with Chequeado and Factchequeado, and supported by WhatsApp.

Fecha de publicación original: 31/07/2023



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