Voters fill out ballots on Election Day 2022 in Denver. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
Election news coverage should provide community members with reliable information that helps them understand their choices as participants in a democracy. Journalists succeed or fail in living up to that purpose based on their own choices, which they should be transparent about.
With local elections coming next month and a presidential election year around the corner, we at Newsline want you to know how we plan to cover elections and why.
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Coverage that serves the community well focuses on what’s important not to politicians but to the people. It discusses policy not according to official messaging but to impact. It shows not only who could win but what it would mean.
High-value election coverage revolves around families, individuals and every affected resident. It weighs their aspirations against campaign rhetoric and possible election outcomes. It’s careful to account for the interests of those who historically have been underrepresented in the political conversation or excluded from it entirely.
Low-value election coverage clings to the question of who’s going to win. The business of highlighting polls, dollars and endorsements — often called “horse race” coverage — is central to election reporting in many newsrooms across the country. It’s easy to do, it’s always been done, and it often gets attention.
But how well does it serve voters?
Horse race coverage prioritizes those in power, not the people the powerful are supposed to serve. The news it delivers can be superficial, and in some cases it can amount to misinformation if its effect is to legitimize objectionable campaigns or distract from crucial facts.
That’s why in Newsline’s election coverage, we’re demoting the horse race and elevating constituent interests.
If we're doing our jobs well, Newsline's election coverage will enable people to act with clarity and confidence as the ultimate source of sovereignty in public affairs.
We say this as a newsroom that has been as quick as any to write about the race. In August we published a story about how Adam Frisch, a Democrat who is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, was up 2 points in a poll. Frisch almost beat Boebert in 2022, and she has a national profile as a MAGA firebrand, so the story had some inherent reader appeal.
But, considering that the election was well more than a year away and the poll was conducted on behalf of Frisch’s own campaign, the piece, if we’re honest, did little to help democracy thrive in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. (As the editor, I assigned the story, and none of this is a rebuke of the talented reporter who wrote it.)
We don’t want to banish horse race reporting outright. It has its place. Some polls offer important insights. Certain endorsements can revive a moribund campaign. Fundraising can be a gauge of electoral strength. Colorado has at least two congressional races next year that are expected to attract large amounts of out-of-state money, and it would be a disservice to readers for Newsline to discount that factor. But, in general, we want our election coverage to show readers “not the odds, but the stakes.”
That’s the pithy expression New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen uses to call for better election coverage. Few commentators have been more perceptive than Rosen in diagnosing the problem or more persuasive in suggesting a remedy. He advises newsrooms to follow a “citizens agenda.”
“If reporters ask the people they’re trying to inform, ‘What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?’ no one is going to answer with, ‘You’re down five points in the latest polls. Realistically, can you recover?'” Rosen correctly observed. “The citizens agenda approach puts the campaign press on the side of the voters and their right to have their major concerns addressed by the people bidding for power.”
We can’t argue with that admonition.
If we’re doing our jobs well, Newsline’s election coverage will enable people to act with clarity and confidence as the ultimate source of sovereignty in public affairs. We think this is the most useful way the press can realize the awesome role assigned to it in the First Amendment.
There is no rigid formula to guide this endeavor, only good faith intentions, and we are learning as we go. One way we’re learning: Newsline journalists are part of the Colorado Engaged Elections Fellowship 2023 presented by Hearken and COLab.
We’re also learning, most importantly, from readers. Our election coverage will improve the more we understand your concerns, and we invite you to tell us what they are. Email us, text us, tell us face to face.
Polls have their place, but your input is priceless.
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