Campaign finances, misinformation and more election stories for student reporters

Younger voters have a historically low turnout at the polls. Here’s how you can report student-centric election stories. 

August 5, 2020 and

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Younger voters have a historically low turnout at the polls, but accurate reporting on elections, especially during a year of pandemic and protest, matters to your classmates, your district and even the election results.

Although your state’s primary might have already passed, multiple state primaries are scheduled throughout August and September ahead of the U.S. presidential election Nov. 3.

“It’s important to distinguish between what is an actual problem and things that people think are problems (at the polls), especially when you are reporting on voting and the things that you say will have an impact on whether or not people turn out,” said Jessica Huseman, who covers voting rights and election administration for ProPublica.

Huseman chatted with student journalists in Poynter’s College Media Project and MediaWise Voter Project Campus Correspondents about how to find and report stories during the 2020 election. These are her tips.

Student-centric coverage

Make the student angle the forefront of your election coverage. Ask candidates in local, state and national races how they plan to tackle higher education and student-related issues.

Also, request information on how your local campaign authorities are communicating with your university. Campaign authorities sometimes spread misinformation out of misunderstanding or even malice, Huseman said. The Student Press Law Center has a letter generator for each state you can use to file public records requests.

Here’s one story to get you started: Request information on how many polling locations are on your campus and whether those locations have changed over time.

“This is a very good low-hanging fruit story,” Huseman said. “There are a lot of counties that do not want there to be polling locations on college campuses, because they don’t want the campus to change the political sway of the county, which can happen.”

Campaign finances matter

State and federal laws mandate campaigns turn in finance forms that reveal their donors and how much money candidates raised. Student journalists can use these open records to understand how much of your university’s administrators or other important local figures may be getting involved in local and federal elections.

The Federal Election Commission keeps track of national candidates’ money. State and other local candidates should file their information with your county government or another local election authority.

Candidates also fill out forms that reveal where they were previously employed and how much they received financially from those organizations. You can use this public record, which is filed through your county clerk’s office or another election authority, to guide your reporting.

If your candidate worked for a nonprofit organization, you can check the organization’s 990 form to understand more thoroughly how much money the candidate earned. You can locate 990s through ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer or Guidestar.

Pandemic at the polls

The pandemic has had a cascading effect on the way elections are operating, Huseman said.

To start, fewer people are willing to go out to the polls.

“The pandemic has made elections an absolute mess because everyone is having to switch very quickly to vote by mail, which is not as easy as people think it is,” Huseman said.

The switch will require tractor trailers of supplies in cities across the country: more paper, more envelopes, more stamps. But can your city afford all these resources? Some states don’t provide voters with return stamps, adding a financial and logistical barrier.

Huseman noted that in some states, absentee ballot requests aren’t being processed in time, leading voters to reluctantly head to the polls in person, where they can face more issues.

Poll workers are often older, and many are dropping out and staying home instead. Some precincts will close and lines at the few existing polls left will get longer. Will lines be longer than expected in your precinct or are students stepping up to serve as poll workers? Your election clerk should know.

How to find helpful experts

Voter fraud and election security are hot topics in 2020, but misinformation spreads when journalists write in abstracts without consulting experts. Huseman said an expert must meet two criteria: they should have run an election before themselves (or at least participated in the running of an election) and have a computer science degree. These individuals understand how the technology works and how it is used during an election.

Huseman recommended finding sources at the two national associations for election administrators: The National Association for Secretaries of State and the National Association for State Election Directors. Look at their past conference programs and reach out to someone who they picked to speak.

Other organizations with helpful election experts include the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Democracy Fund and Democracy Works.

Note what your staff can actually cover

You don’t have to cover everything. Before the election season begins, assess what issues your staff is interested in, and what you can devote resources to covering.

College journalists can search for a regional or national nonprofit newsroom that allows their stories to be reprinted. Then, writers at your publication can focus on hyperlocal issues, or national issues from a student perspective. You can also sign up for ProPublica’s Electionland, which documents voting impediments in real time, providing reporters with local leads.

“Take an honest look at the talent you have in your newsroom,” Huseman said. “You don’t have to do everything well.”

Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. Nicole Asbury is a senior at the University of Kansas studying journalism and women, gender and sexuality studies.

One tool we love

How well do elections run in your county? This ProPublica interactive uses 2016 data from local election officials to visualize key metrics, like voter turnout, poll workers and voter roll purges. This data will give you a baseline for comparing 2020’s results.

What’s your favorite tool that other student journalists should know about? Email me and I might feature it in a future issue.

One story worth reading

Is being on overactive Journalism Twitter™ worth it? Some journalists are scaling back their use of the platform, citing harassment and petty arguments, Mark Lieberman reports for Poynter. “People have to be mindful about using it as a tool versus it taking over their life,” one journalist who deactivated his account told Lieberman.

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Four strategies for covering science at your publication

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com or on Twitter @blatchfordtr.