As the U.S. heads into the 2022 midterm elections, plenty of newsrooms around the country are providing the same sort of coverage they always have. They’ll focus more on campaign stops, political attacks, and which candidates are winning or losing in polls than on the policies and issues at stake.
This kind of coverage, known as “horse race” reporting, has its downfalls. Researchers have found that horse race coverage amplifies extreme partisanship and can lead to voter distrust in candidates and news outlets. That’s why several members of the INN Network, including Spotlight PA, Injustice Watch, and The 19th, are trying a different approach to election coverage.
“We are really trying to rethink the traditional election playbook,” said Christopher Baxter, executive director and editor in chief of Spotlight PA. “Part of what we are always emphasizing as an organization is: How are we different? How are we providing unique value to people? What sets us apart?”
In asking those questions, Baxter said, the Pennsylvania-focused investigative newsroom “made the decision that all of our election coverage is going to revolve around the voter.”
“Before we write any election story,” he explained, “We really ask ourselves, ‘How does this help a voter make an informed choice?’”
The Spotlight PA Election Center includes helpful guides on how to research candidates, become poll workers, and vote. This year, Spotlight also launched a special election series, “One Vote, Two Pennsylvanias,” which explains, through policy proposals and issue-based reporting, the wildly different visions the candidates for Pennsylvania governor have for the future of the state.
Baxter is proud that Spotlight is focused deeply on the candidates’ histories, their sources of campaign cash, and where they stand on issues. “The goal of Spotlight is to have impact — whatever form it could be,” he said. “We want to provide something that people can’t get anywhere else.”
Providing unique coverage also motivates the team behind Injustice Watch, a small news organization based in Chicago that’s dedicated to exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality. This election season, as in years past, Injustice Watch has produced an interactive guide called “Check Your Judges,” which helps voters in Cook County, Illinois, learn about the scores of judges running for retention.
Jonah Newman, the managing editor of Injustice Watch and lead project manager on Check Your Judges, said that the guide fits squarely into the news organization’s mission. Since Injustice Watch’s founding in 2015, he said, “our co-founders were really interested in the lack of reporting on judges.” In particular, Newman added, Injustice Watch wanted to give more scrutiny to “these powerful elected officials whose decisions have a profound impact on people’s day to day lives in so many ways.”
Injustice Watch’s eight-person team spent months researching each Cook County judge’s legal experience, community involvement and political connections. They also sent all 61 judges a survey asking how they’ve worked to counteract disparities in the court system — something all but nine judges filled out. Then, they compiled all of that information into a comprehensive guide that includes a sample ballot that voters can fill out and take to the polls and a glossary to help make sense of specific legal terms.
“The reason we chose Check Your Judges as our motto and brand is because we want to encourage people to actually take these elections seriously — to actually participate in them,” said Newman.
Since Check Your Judges was introduced in 2016, Newman said that Cook County voter participation on the judicial portion of ballots has gone up. “We don’t take sole credit for that,” he said. “But I do think we’ve played a role in really bringing awareness in Chicago and Cook County about why these elections matter and then also giving people the tools and resources to make an informed decision.”
Injustice Watch and Spotlight PA have found ways to empower and educate voters on local and statewide levels. The 19th, which focuses on the intersection of gender, politics, and policy, has learned how to listen to voters across the country.
“We have a specific set of issues that we cover, and we ask questions that maybe some other outlets don’t,” said Terri Rupar, political editor at The 19th. “With that in mind, we started thinking about how a poll could work for The 19th.”
This summer, The 19th and SurveyMonkey teamed up to create and conduct a poll to find out what U.S. women, particularly women of color and LGBTQ+ people, think about politics and policy. The goal of the poll was not to cover the horse race (“Other people are doing that; we don’t need to recreate everything they’re doing,” said Rupar), but to find out what motivates those voters.
In mid-September, The 19th published the results of the poll, calling the project “The State of Our Nation.” They shared what more than 20,000 women and LGBTQ+ people across the country thought about topics like abortion policies, caregiving and health care.
“Part of what The 19th aims to do is to highlight the voices of people who mainstream media doesn’t highlight,” said Rupar, explaining that one of the ways they do this is through articles featuring individual voices.
“The survey is a macro version of this,” she continued. “It’s not necessarily individual voices, but it does allow us to give this information about the country broadly.”
Engaging with Spanish-speaking audiences has become increasingly important within the INN Network over the past several years. The 19th conducted its survey in both English and Spanish, selecting respondents from the more than two million people who take surveys on SurveyMonkey each day. Injustice Watch’s Check Your Judges guide is also translated into Spanish. And, for the first time this year, all of Spotlight PA’s voter guides are offered in both English and Spanish.
“Each election cycle, we are working to push our work out to more people in more targeted ways,” said Newman. In 2020, Injustice Watch sent printed copies of their guide to people incarcerated at the Cook County jail, “because we wanted to make sure that people who are most directly impacted by the justice system had access to information about the judges on the ballot.” This year they’ve done the same, in addition to printing 120,000 copies of the guide, which they’re distributing through partnerships with print publications, community organizations, churches and local libraries.
Rupar said that The State of Our Nation results have already had an impact on which stories The 19th covers, and will continue to shape their coverage.
And for Baxter, whose organization offers their content for free to newsrooms across the state, some of his favorite examples of impact come directly from readers.
“They say, ‘Look, I see a Spotlight story in my paper, I stop and I read it, because I know that’s going to be something that’s going to be worth my time. I’m going to learn from it,’” Baxter said. “And that’s exactly what we want.”
This story was originally published on the Institute for Nonprofit News’s Medium site. Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a writer and journalist. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain, here.