Rethinking Election Coverage

In the popular imagination of American democracy, the press informs voters so that they can make the best choice at the polls. However, many citizens feel as though that contract has been broken. People are frustrated with “horse-race coverage” of elections—that is, journalism focused more on who is “electable”, who is “winning” and the mechanics of campaigning than on policy and helping voters make the best choice. Rather than seeking a technology-first solution, this project proposes to begin with Jay Rosen’s suggestion that journalists ask "what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?" and work to make the coverage about that.

Students applying for this project should expect to produce “coverage” early and often, experimenting with audience outreach methods and delivering content, but non-journalism students are encouraged to apply! There will be room for you to write, if you want, or to explore ways to cover the race that aren’t primarily text. Also, students in any program are capable of helping develop experiments for understanding what audiences want, attempting to deliver it, evaluating effectiveness and adjusting the process. (Also, students should expect to reach beyond the Northwestern community to find people who would like to be served by a different approach to election journalism.)

Faculty and Staff Leads

Joe Germuska

Chief Nerd

Joe runs Knight Lab’s technology, professional staff and student fellows. Before joining us, Joe was on the Chicago Tribune News Apps team. Also, he hosts a weekly radio show on WNUR-FM – Conference of the Birds.

Project Details

2019 Fall

Important Questions
  • What do various groups want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?
  • What are some simple but effective methods and tools for developing a relationship between an audience or audiences to learn what people want to know and deliver them useful information?
  • Is one of the reasons “horse-race” journalism popular because it helps protect the ideal of journalistic objectivity? Can/should that principle be upheld while seeking to give people “what they want?”
Sample Milestones
  • Week 1: Generate ideas for outreach; identify potential communities to reach.
  • Week 2: Begin outreach, identify story ideas
  • Weeks 3-4: Deliver first stories, measure results, refine outreach methods
  • Week 5: Midterm presentation
  • Weeks 6-8: Continue iterating on coverage and outreach; begin reflecting on process and planning final report
  • Weeks 9-10: Wrap up final coverage and finish a document describing the experiments and their results
Outcome

Students will gain practice in “engagement journalism” and developing methods for working with audiences to set a story budget and to deliver coverage in satisfying formats. At the end of the quarter, the team will recap their work in a document which can be published on the Knight Lab Studio website to help other people learn from their experience.

Apply to Project