On Election Night, while setting up a press conference at Detroit’s TCF Center, where a record number of absentee ballots were being counted, I couldn’t help flashing back 26 years.
As a TV news writer/producer in Atlanta, I arrived for my 1994 Election Night shift to find I wasn’t writing a lead election story, as presumed, for the 6:00 news. Looking at the rundown, nothing about the election (which would catapult a local Congressman named Newt Gingrich to Speaker of the House), was running until after the first commercial break. I wondered, was coverage of elections in local news, really going to be relegated to sign stealing incidents and late news Election Nights live shots from parties?
Years later, it seemed maybe national election coverage would just be dueling “both sides” actors on cable news sets.
With an election so important, would 2020 be different?
After working close to the action for six months, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
My colleagues and I handled media relations for bipartisan and nonpartisan voter information campaigns. We weren’t working to get anyone elected. But, since May, we had to pay close attention to daily national, state and local election news coverage. Along the way, we worked with dozens of journalists on hundreds of pieces of news, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to national network TV.
Despite what many critics would want you to believe, nearly all of the journalists and news outlets we worked with were absolutely committed to equipping voters with information tools, educating them on their options and their rights and providing a voice to informed experts. News outlets strongly wished to enlighten, fairly, giving time and space to information, not just candidate spin. Journalists were willing to drill beyond headlines, investing hours, to get the background they needed to tell the 2020 story differently than any other election.
Even in a year with the COVID crisis looming, news organizations of all sizes placed election information as a top priority, week after week, month after month.
Yes, there was outsized attention to “horserace” polls, paid for by the outlets themselves. But those were relatively few and far between, compared with the day-to-day voter information that outlets were willing to provide and even showcase.
Nearly every journalist we encountered exhibited the highest levels of professionalism, with voter information the highest item on any agenda.
In more than a week since the agenda, I have personally experienced the tenacity and commitment of fact-checking journalists, not purveyors of partisan points, seeking truth about what really happened inside counting rooms and with election processes. Their work, and commitment to facts, has enlightened millions of voters to dangerous disinformation.
In thinking about coverage of this election, do not mistake cable evening studio shows for “The Media.” Think, instead about the national producers, working behind the scenes, to learn the “swing states” to anticipate trends and, no matter where you live, the dozens of local reporters in your state who worked harder, with fewer resources, to bring you information that helped you cast your vote.