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Sept. 29, 2020, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The election could be contested and last for weeks after Nov. 3. Here’s what experts think journalists should know.

“Newsrooms need to prepare for a political environment in which mainstream political figures, most notably the President of the United States, are going to promote false and unsupported claims about the election. They need to prepare for that now.”

Editor’s note: With mis- and disinformation campaigns heating up, a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and a President who refuses to commit to accepting the results, the 2020 election arrives at a period of extraordinary uncertainty and tension. Nieman Reports and Nieman Lab are publishing a collection of stories exploring how newsrooms are covering this intensely contested vote and its aftermath.

Can he do that? How many times over, say, the last four years have readers asked you that? How many times have you asked yourself?

The National Task Force on Election Crises, a cross-partisan group of experts, wants reporters to know exactly how presidential elections are conducted and decided — including what happens when election results are disputed.

The task force has a number of resources specifically for journalists, starting with a media guide and legal guidelines that explain, for example, that no, the president cannot postpone or cancel the general election. In a virtual summit for journalists this month, government officials, election experts, and civil rights advocates advised journalists on what they can do to reduce the impact of misinformation and bad faith claims about the election. (Besides media workers, the task force has reached out to tech companies, politicians, military figures, professional athletes, faith leaders, and business executives.) Many of the recommendations for reporters fell into one of three buckets: setting expectations before the election; covering and contextualizing Election Day itself; and reporting on what happens after November 3.

It’s in this post-Election Day period “when inevitably there will be challenges and questions raised about the results and about the accuracy,” Michael Chertoff, a former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, said during the summit. How journalists frame these inevitable challenges, Chertoff added, will be “very, very critical” to “maintaining good order, discipline, and faith in our process.”

Does that sound alarmist? The country is deeply polarized and just 22% of Americans think the upcoming election will be “free and fair.” The president has repeatedly made baseless accusations of widespread voting fraud, declared that he could only lose in November if the election was “rigged,” and refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

With all that in mind, here’s what the task force wants you to know.

Set expectations for election night

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist and professor at Dartmouth College, argued that Americans may be the most vulnerable to misinformation during an unexplained waiting period. He said the media — particularly cable news — should build their coverage around a scenario in which the winner of the election is not known on election night.

“It’s going to be essential for the media to be responsible in that moment. They really are guardians of the legitimacy of our democratic process,” Nyhan said. “It will be tempting to put people on TV saying things about what’s happening, including that the election is being stolen, to fill the void in the news environment. I would just encourage everyone to think about the stakes here again, that we live in a country that is at significant risk of democratic erosion. Amplifying those kinds of claims in that moment is a profoundly irresponsible act.”

Norman Ornstein, a task force member and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recommended journalists familiarize themselves with the rules of processing and counting votes by mail as well as the number of votes cast, by precinct, in the 2016 presidential election. The former will help explain why some states take longer to tally results and the latter can provide a rough benchmark for determining how much of the electorate has yet to be counted as election night winds down.

“If you know that only a third of the ballots have been counted on election eve, you need to make it very clear that many, many more votes have yet to be cast,” Ornstein said. “Remember we have many states where history says that 5 or 6% will vote by mail and that may be 50 or 60% this time.”

Why all this focus on election night, you ask?

Although the National Task Force on Election Crises suggests “avoiding speculation about absentee voting preferences” in its media guide, several of its assembled experts pointed to surveys that suggest Democrats and Biden supporters are more likely to vote by mail or absentee this year than Republicans and those who intend to vote for Trump.

The “No. 1 nightmare,” as Ornstein put it, is a presidential candidate claiming victory on election night based on reported in-person votes before millions more mail-in and provisional ballots have been counted. If the winner “flips” days or weeks after election night, experts worry that the public may mistrust certified election results, unless initial results are contextualized and the potential for a delay is fully explained.

Make a plan for misinformation.

“The primary source of misinformation in people’s information diets is from mainstream political figures via the mainstream media,” Nyhan said. “Newsrooms need to prepare for a political environment in which mainstream political figures, most notably the President of the United States, are going to promote false and unsupported claims about the election. They need to prepare for that now. And they need to have a conversation internally about how to cover those claims in a way that’s consistent with their journalistic values.”

Nyhan noted that the standard advice to journalists — verify before publication, avoid amplifying misinformation — is easier said than done.

“It’s not easy. And the reason is those claims will often be made by high-profile political figures in a way that media organizations feel like they have to cover on deadline,” Nyhan said. “If they are not careful, they will cover them in a ‘he said, she said’ manner that gives legitimacy to unfounded, unverified, or unrepresentative claims.”

The task force recommends focusing on the process of voting, reporting on the steps that states are taking to certify ballots, and describing unfounded claims as “political posturing.”

While foreign interference, Russian bots, and deepfakes were mentioned during the summit, task force members seemed more concerned with attempts to undermine the legitimacy of election results originating in the United States. “I think what the Russians may well have learned is they don’t have to make the content up. We have people in the U.S. who will do it,” Chertoff said. “All they have to do is amplify and disseminate it more widely.”

Learn the timetable.

Did you know that if there’s no clear winner by noon on election day — January 20, 2021 — the Electoral Count Act provides for an “acting president” while disputes are resolved? The Speaker of the House is first in line; the current president does not stay in office.

States will be working to count votes, resolve disputes over rejected ballots, and address an already unprecedented number of legal challenges before the certification deadline in early December. Many states, including the battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, will be doing this on the fly, after making provisions to allow mail-in voting during a presidential election for the first time due to Covid-19.

Get experts and election officials — not partisans — on the record.

Task force members said journalists would do well to rely on state and local election officials, rather than those speaking for a campaign or party.

Trey Grayson, a former Secretary of State for Kentucky, advised reporters to identify election administrators and bonafide experts who can provide historical, legal, and state-specific context. Elections are already a highly decentralized affair in the United States and a patchwork of new pandemic provisions has made understanding state and local rules even more important to helping readers figure out where, when, and how they can cast a ballot.

Grayson said that building relationships with state and local election administrators is particularly crucial but that state-level officials — including current and former secretaries of state and appointed election directors — are more likely to be able to engage with the media on that first Tuesday in November.

“Keep in mind on Election Day itself, the local election administrators are much more focused on the literal operation of the election. Don’t expect to get a lot of access directly to a local election administrator, a county clerk, or executive director of a board of elections,” Grayson said. “My suggestion for folks covering elections is to the extent that you need access to those local administrators, do that in advance. Start those conversations now. If you want to cover this, you need to understand the rules in your state or jurisdiction.”

Provide information about voting and add context when reporting on irregularities.

Two task force members — Vanita Gupta, who led the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division during the Obama administration, and María Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino — encouraged journalists to provide context and straightforward information on how to vote alongside necessary reporting on irregularities, marginalized voters, or polling station problems.

“If the media is only in the business of raising the alarm, it can create so much noise and confusion for voters that it can create its own form of voter suppression,” Gupta said. “Voter suppression isn’t just the impediments that get stood in the way for voters when they try to vote. It’s also the act of discouragement or dissuasion or confusion or fear-mongering that can beset voters and have them sit it out.”

And consider running the irregularity by an expert. Task force member Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor in elections for Democracy Fund, debunked a few myths about mail-in voting during the summit. She said voters posting about getting multiple ballots sent to them in the mail are conflating applications — widely distributed by political parties and nonprofits — with actual ballots. She also addressed the president’s suggestion that his supporters try to vote twice to test the legitimacy of the election.

“You get to vote once,” Patrick said. “But the President has said, request an absentee ballot, vote it, and then go and try and vote in person and see if you can test how secure this really is. The reality is that in most of the states, that will result in a provisional ballot, which will further slow down voting in person, but in a handful of states that will wait to count their absentee ballots, that voter is going to get a standard ballot. In their mind, they may believe that they have, in fact, voted twice.”

You can read additional recommendations at the task force’s website.

Photo of ballot sorting in Multnomah County, Oregon by Motoya Nakamura used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 29, 2020, 10 a.m.
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