245 judiciously, and take time to ask your audience for feedback.

Journalists had a lot to deal with when covering the 2020 election.
They were accused of having a liberal bias, and of covering conservative and progressive ideas and candidates differently. They operated in an information landscape that involved low trust in “the media” and increasing “fake news” accusations. They had to navigate conspiracy theories and heavy dissemination of misinformation and disinformation.

None of those issues disappeared after the election, of course. And our focus is now on what journalists learned covering elections that can be useful in the rest of their coverage of civic life.
Journalists learned a lot in 2020. At Trusting News, we partnered with Hearken on Election SOS, so we could offer newsrooms support. We incorporated the primary ideas of our training philosophy (the importance of transparency, engagement and being responsive to audience feedback) while focusing specifically on the unique landscape and issues related to an election happening during a global pandemic. This included:
Examining the relationship journalists have (and the one they want) with the people they aim to serve.
Encouraging news organizations and journalists to tell their audience how they work hard to be fair.
Providing guidance on a journalist’s and news organization’s role in fighting misinformation and disinformation.
Evolving organizational cultures and creating change in a newsroom.
We know that if we do not explain to our community that we check facts, vet sources and work to be fair, our audiences are not going to automatically give us credit for doing so.
Also, it’s reasonable for news consumers to be frustrated by partisan information, overwhelmed with choices and confused about what news to trust. Because of this, we encourage journalists to have some empathy for the user experience of consuming political news.
This is true for election coverage. And it’s also true for ongoing coverage of civic life, politics — and more broadly, democracy.
What do you want people to know about the values and ethics behind your coverage?
Here are some principles from election coverage that can and should apply to those broader themes as well.
Get back to basics
Let’s help users understand how government works and what politicians can and can’t do once elected. Let’s work to explain how to vote, of course, but also how to participate in democracy. Which government office handles which decisions? How do issues move through the process, and when can people make their voices heard? As journalists, we should work to make sure questions like this are answered and easy to find. Stories should pull back from daily decisions and put the events in context of the larger process. If someone doesn’t follow local issues closely, does your coverage help educate them, or make them feel confused or out of the loop?
Consider FAQ pages or election guides
When writing stories, journalists often weave important big-picture information into a story. That’s appropriate, but it can also be difficult for users to find later. Consider creating stand-alone pages that answer questions about elections or your local government. Most newsrooms create election guides that include information about candidates and the issues (these are great). Even better is when they include how to vote, how to fill out a ballot, where to vote, etc. To step back from election season, consider having continually updated FAQ pages about other local issues. What is the history? Who makes the decisions? What do various stakeholders have to say? Providing this information in one place makes it easier to find, easier to understand and more useful. It also allows journalists to quickly answer questions from users or send a single link to the page or FAQ.
Work to combat misinformation/disinformation
With so many false narratives and rumors circulating, journalists should be on the lookout for these stories and be prepared to set the record straight. They do have to think about when (we like First Draft’s Tipping Point approach) and how to cover misinformation, being careful to further amplify it. Have a plan for how you will write and approach conspiracy theories and rumors. What is your policy if someone shares misinformation within your comment section? Will you be looking for false information posted online and fact-checking it as it comes up? Do you want your community to contact you if they see false information spreading online? Think about what your approach will be and share it with your audience. Also talk about how and when to respond to accusations of “fake news,” and consider addressing public attacks on your credibility.
Explain how you work to be fair
When journalists work hard to get the facts right and provide context fairly, they should not be afraid to stand behind that coverage. They also should be willing to share how they put the story together and why they chose to cover the story in the first place. Especially when it comes to politics, people will make assumptions about your story selection, who you talk to and what you share on social media. If in your coverage of civic issues, you are thinking carefully about all of these things and have developed standards or a plan, tell your community. Explain your approach to making sure issues are covered thoroughly and judiciously, and take time to ask your audience for feedback.
Why this is worth it
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Election coverage often includes careful planning, and we encourage you to bring strategies like the ones mentioned here into discussions of civic issues and democracy in general. If news consumers do not understand the basics of what you are writing about, they probably won’t consume the content. If news consumers don’t know why you decided to focus on an issue, they will make assumptions, which most likely will be negative. Taking time to explain how the political system and government work while being open about your approach and news decisions will help build trust with your users. It can also make both your journalism and the democratic process seem more approachable and transparent.
We’re diving deep into trust across the political spectrum
We cannot truly function as a country and as individual communities if we do not have news outlets that are trusted by a majority of people to be record keepers, storytellers and conversation hosts. Yet we know that in these polarized times, political views often determine which news outlets someone trusts.
At Trusting News, we are working on what mistrust looks like across the political spectrum. We’re starting by partnering with local newsrooms to interview people who lean right, so we can understand their perceptions and views with more complexity and depth. We then plan to help newsrooms learn from those insights and from each other, so that as an industry we can address the gaps in trust more thoughtfully.
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newsrooms learn from those insights and from each other, so that as an industry we can address the gaps in trust more thoughtfully.

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