The year of the voter

“What does that look like? It means less reporting from the party and campaign level, more reporting from communities.”

Over the course of 2018, we’ll hear repeatedly how high the stakes are for the midterm elections. Will Republicans lose control of the House? Will Democrats gain seats in the Senate? What do the latest polls say about President Trump’s popularity?

Indeed, elections have consequences. But it’s time for journalists to focus less on horse races and more on the barriers that prevent curious people from getting to the polls.

Many people have busy lives and scarce attention to pay to elections. Often, elections feel like something that happens to people, not a tool designed to help them. As journalists, we can and should help shrink the political process — impersonal and remote — into something tangible and resonant.

What does that look like? It means less reporting from the party and campaign level, more reporting from communities. It requires us to drop assumptions about what voters should care about and instead observe and listen for their unmet information needs. It means producing coverage that not only explains and informs, but entertains and connects emotionally.

Here’s how you could do it: Dispatch your reporters to neighborhoods where turnout has traditionally been low. Talk to people who have never voted and talk to people who show up to the polls without fail. Ask them about their experiences. What do they know about their elected officials and how do they know it? What does “good governing” look and feel like? How do they feel about voting and why do they feel that way?

Review all the answers and look for commonalities across the groups. Brainstorm different kinds of stories and information you could provide to help them connect more to the process. Experiment. Make something new. Rinse. Repeat.

Media organizations that can truly meet voters where they are — and can help them make an informed decision on the ballot — will not only win the day, but can help to fulfill the promise of a free press in a democratic society.

Kristen Muller is chief content officer of Southern California Public Radio.

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