Democracy, front and center

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from August 17 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and shout-outs to journalists statewideSign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

We spent some valuable time last Wednesday at the NC Elections Prep: Focus on Democracy workshop at Elon, presented by the NC Local News Workshop.

Jessica Huseman of Votebeat
Jessica Huseman of Votebeat

Jessica Huseman (below), editorial director of Votebeat, and Shannon McGregor, professor and senior researcher at UNC’s Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, offered great tips on centering democracy in reporters’ essential responsibilities, focus and tactics; their guidelines are a great template for anyone covering elections this year. Lucille Sherman of Axios Raleigh and Ryan Thornburg of the UNC Hussman School provided a guide to using and finding stories in campaign finance data, and Melanie Sill led a discussion on empowering and engaging audiences and building the local elections franchise.

Sill, who facilitated the event along with Shannan Bowen, executive director of the Workshop, collected these links to the presentations and resources from the sessions. They’ll be worth your time now and in months to come if you missed the workshop, or even if you were there and missed one of the concurrent sessions or need a refresher.

There also was great conversation. Deborah Holt Noel, host and producer of Black Issues Forum at PBS North Carolina, led an informal discussion at lunch about takeaways and best practices:

  • Paola Jaramillo, co-founder and executive editor of Enlace Latino NC, stressed the importance of reaching Spanish-speaking voters and making sure they have access to the information they need. About 1 million North Carolina residents are Hispanic.
  • Travis Fain, state government reporter at WRAL, emphasized several points raised by Huseman and McGregor — make candidates own their positions; remember that balance is not the goal of the reporting but a pathway to a real goal, which is fairness; use the term “without evidence” when reporting on false statements. And regarding false statements, use the “truth sandwich” — a technique promoted by linguist George Lakoff and recommended by Sill during a morning session, which involves prefacing, and following, misinformation with the objective truth, rather than leading with the lie.
  • Lynn Bonner, investigative reporter at NC Policy Watch, urged us to pay attention to the activities of partisan election observers “who have been trained to question routine voting procedures. Some elections workers found the observers intimidating. Will this have any impact on hiring workers and the smooth running of elections in November?” (More on that, below.)
  • Jordan Schrader, state government editor at The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, stressed the basics of voter empowerment: “Make sure you’re answering the questions people are asking — whether that’s about a voter ID requirement, how to track your mail ballot, how to know if your vote counted, or what is the independent state legislature doctrine. And make sure you’re getting those answers to the people who are looking for them at the time when they’re looking, which is probably during voting.”
  • Michael Bitzer, political analyst and writer and political science chair at Catawba College, had this advice: “We talk a great deal about ‘democratic norms,’ those ‘unwritten rules’ of American politics, like peaceful transitions of power, respecting the will of the voters in terms of election results, and separate institutions sharing power to govern. For local reporters, what might you consider to be the critical ‘democratic norms’ that you should hold candidates and elected officials accountable for?… Citizens need to hold their elected representatives, and those seeking public office, to respect the rules of our political system, and to understand what those rules — both written and unwritten — mean.”

The next Workshop session on election coverage will be virtual, featuring story ideas and an overview of how elections function. Jordan Wilkie and Laura Lee will lead the free hourlong gathering — The ‘Big Lie’ and 2022 Election Administration in NC — on Tuesday, August 30, at noon. Sign up to attend.

More on elections

The North Carolina Network for Fair, Safe, and Secure Elections, a bipartisan initiative supported by The Carter Center, will conduct a statewide Trusted Elections Tour — 14 town halls, one in each congressional district, “to provide information on the electoral process, build trust in our voting system, and strengthen civil discourse.” The tour begins on August 30 in Wake Forest. View the dates and more details.

‘I’m very sorry that your life has to come to an end in this way. If you don’t comply, I’ve been contracted to kill you.’

The latest episode of Tim Boyum’s Tying it Together podcast is a stunner — Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the State Board of Elections, and Kathy Holland, former Alamance County elections director, talk with Boyum about the flood of public records and data requests, turnover of county directors, and threats of violence that confront them on the job.

“Every day we are still dealing with the 2020 election,” Brinson Bell says. “More so than ever.”

◼️ You can still join hundreds of media outlets that have signed up to participate in Democracy Day and publish stories on September 15 about how democracy works, how it’s threatened and how citizens can work to save it. Learn more.

◼️ With the Josh Stein/Lorrin Freeman legal battle in the news, this database from CITAP at UNC on federal and state regulations regarding election-related speech is quite useful.

◼️ This new Ad Observatory tool can help you follow political ad money.

◼️ API is surveying newsrooms about what they will need to cover the election and democracy, and it promises to act on the results. Weigh in.

◼️ Today’s the deadline to apply for grants of $1,500 to $5,000 from API’s Election Coverage & Community Listening Fund.

◼️ Beg/borrow/steal from The Texas Tribune’s plan for empowering voters.

◼️ Here are Twitter’s plans to curb misinformation during the elections this year.