With the 2020 election well underway and less than two weeks until the votes are counted, this reminder for reporters is simple but essential: Some Americans are plugging in to this election for the first time.
Every day, people are seeking out basic information about the campaigns, the policies, the arguments, and the vote-casting process.
Those of us in the press need to start our stories at the beginning, not the middle, and direct readers to the foundational information they need.
Joy Mayer, the director of Trusting News, pointed this out in a tweet on Tuesday. “Journalists, please remember that parts of your community are just now really tuning in to election coverage,” she wrote.
“Act accordingly. I know you’ve been obsessed for months. Not everyone has been.”
There are great examples of this already: CNN’s Election 101 website and podcast; NBC’s “Plan Your Vote” guide; the Washington Post’s “how to vote in your state” feature.
The filmmakers at “Frontline” are out with the latest edition of their election season series “The Choice,” with what they call “investigative biographies” of President Trump and Joe Biden.
And “60 Minutes” is working on in-depth interviews of both men that will be broadcast this Sunday. (Trump is already criticizing the correspondent who interviewed him.)
Voter guides, explainers and backgrounders are vital. Stories need to emphasize why this election season is unique and why it could take longer to know the results, due to the rise in mail-in ballots.
Pew Research Center’s latest survey of American adults finds that “interest in the 2020 election has increased over the last month.”
Notably, “for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak began in earnest,” people are now following the election as closely as the pandemic.
Also: “Interest in election news is high among both Trump and Biden supporters. About half of registered voters who support Trump (49%) and Biden (53%) say they are following election news very closely.” Some other key findings:
— “Americans plan to follow election returns closely and most are confident their news sources will make the right call.”
— “Overall, about four-in-ten Americans say they have stopped talking to someone because of something they said,” and Joe Biden supporters “are more likely to do this.”
— “Most Americans say the news sources they turn to most have covered the election well.”
“The real divide in America is between political junkies and everyone else.”
That’s the headline on this New York Times op-ed by Stony Brook University professors Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan. And I am grateful for the reminder they have provided.
“The gap between those who follow politics closely and those who don’t” is critical to understand.
“For partisans,” they write, “politics is a morality play, a struggle of good versus evil. But most Americans just see two angry groups of people bickering over issues that may not always seem pressing or important.”
More casual consumers need on-ramps to the news that aren’t littered by the debris from hopeless and horrible arguments amongst the junkies.
In the words of Vox founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein, insiders “pay too much attention to the elite left-right divide in politics and way too little attention to the interested-uninterested divide. A politics by, and for, the politically obsessed emphasizes very different issues than the broader public wants.”