By:
November 2, 2020

Journalists are going to produce a lot of content during election week. And staffers tasked with social media duties will share a lot of posts, swarming users’ feeds with update after update.

You know what else will be in those feeds? Rumors, speculation and misinformation. Next to a post from your newsroom with the results of an election could be a post saying that the winning candidate is stealing the election, or that the vote is rigged, or that ballots are being dumped, or that “the media” wants a specific candidate to win.

Most people aren’t spending much time differentiating your posts from the rest of what’s in their feed. Instead, they’re skimming. They’re forming perceptions quickly. They’re having strong feelings about how the election is going. And they might be ranting in comments under your posts.

When they interact with your content, remember that they could actually be reacting to everything else in their feed. If they complain about media bias, speculation or inaccuracies, they might be responding to other journalism they think was irresponsible or to their friend’s provocative post, not just to your team’s work.

As a social media producer, you would be wise to understand that user experience and strategize about how to make your posts stand out.

Here are three suggestions:

As you choose what to post, focus on what your team does best.

News consumers will be flooded with information about the election. And, especially when it comes to the presidential race, they’ll likely have strong feelings about how the candidates are portrayed and how the race is being covered.

Local newsrooms often make the mistake of entering into the drama of national politics by sharing links to wire or syndicated content on social media. It might bring you some clicks, but what does it cost you in terms of credibility?

Members of the public don’t usually notice or care about the byline on a story. If a headline about Donald Trump or Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi irritates them, they’re going to be annoyed with the brand that posted the link. And they might tell you that in a comment.

At Trusting News, we’ve found that even when we explain to audiences why and when we rely on content from partners like The Associated Press, they don’t always understand that each newsroom isn’t independently producing or verifying wire stories.

And given that each person will likely see a fraction of what you post on social media, isn’t it better to emphasize what your newsroom prioritizes and excels at? If that’s local coverage, stay local. If it’s statewide coverage, do that. But until you’re sharing the result of the presidential race (whenever that is), my advice is to build the credibility of your brand by drawing the attention of your social media followers to the content you know they value most from you.

And on behalf of journalism’s credibility: Please, if you post a link to an opinion piece, make sure it’s clearly labeled as opinion.

Make time for engagement

If your social media staffing plan allows for publishing information but not listening and responding to feedback and questions, please reconsider. Reading, moderating and participating in comments can achieve three things:

  1. Allow you to delete misinformation if you see it, so your page isn’t a vehicle for rumors and lies.
  2. Provide a window into what your audience wants to know about the topics you cover, so you can answer questions or pass tips on to reporters.
  3. Clue you into how your work is being perceived, so you have a chance to respond or correct the record.

Remember, comments are read by a lot more people than just the ones doing the commenting. If someone says you haven’t covered something that you have in fact covered, accuses a story of being inaccurate or claims that you’re driven by a political agenda, you should correct them. Otherwise, you’re ceding the conversation to your critics. You’re allowing your credibility to be unfairly attacked on a conversation that you’re actually hosting.

I know, comments can be a mess. And if your comments are typically a mess, election week is not going to be when they miraculously become more civil and productive.

But I bet you can predict some comments you might get. Go ahead and make a list of the themes you’re likely to see. Then try having some responses handy, and look for opportunities to use them. Some potential language you could adapt is further down. (But you can only use them if you’re *reading* the comments.)

As you engage, consider both the tone and content of your responses. Be respectful and calm, and think about what you want people to understand about you. Read responses out loud to your colleagues if you’re not sure you’ve hit the right mark.

Explain your purpose and credibility redundantly

Think about why and how you invest in covering elections. Then think about what an increasingly polarized public thinks of journalism. People are actually split about the basic question of whether journalism is helping democracy these days. (And they’re increasingly divided along party lines.)

Has your newsroom talked to your audience about the philosophy, goals, scope and processes behind your elections coverage, perhaps in a column, on air, in a social video or in a newsletter? Take inspiration from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and Colorado Public Radio.

If you have a similar story published, I hope you’re linking to it often. Like, from every single election story. It can go in a box, in an italicized note at the top of the story, or in a link within the text.

On social media, you could post it once a day as a stand-alone post. You could create a social story with highlights of the message, and pin it to your page. You could leave a description and link in a comment under each post. You could have an editor verbalize it in a social video, and keep that link handy as well.

A few examples of what that language might look like. (Feel free to copy and adapt!)

Our journalists are working hard to keep you up to date on election news that’s specific to our (city, county, state). You won’t find us sharing speculation — only information we’ve carefully fact-checked. Please send news tips and feedback to xx@xx.com.

Our journalists are focusing our coverage on races and issues specific to xxx. We will only share results when they are deemed official by the office of the (secretary of state, county officials, etc.). For statewide and national results, we rely on the Associated Press, which has been counting election results since 1848. Learn more here. https://www.ap.org/en-us/topics/politics/elections/counting-the-vote

As our mission statement says, we aim to help the people in our community participate fully in civic life, and covering elections is central to that mission. We are driven by a desire to provide a public service, and we are independent from a particular political party or ideology. As a team of professionals, we hold each other to high standards of fairness and ethics, and we invite you to hold us accountable as well. Read more about our mission, and let us know what we’re doing, on our website.

We know there’s a lot of partisan information out there, and finding credible information about the election (especially the national races) can be difficult. Our goal is to earn your trust by consistently sharing fair, independent coverage of our local community. If you have examples of where we could do better, please comment here or email xxx. 

We strive to cover all candidates fairly, no matter what their political affiliation is. We don’t try to make any candidates or parties look bad. We cover what happens and how people say they feel about a candidate/issue. This means you will sometimes see people quoted in stories sharing negative and positive feelings about individuals/issues. By sharing those perspectives we are not agreeing or disagreeing with them, we are sharing the information to help provide you with context and insight, so you can make your own decision.

This is an opinion piece, written by a columnist whose job is to analyze and provide commentary on life in our community. Opinion content is assigned and edited by xx, whose role is independent from the reporters and editors you trust for news coverage. 

Find more election tips from Trusting News — including how to explain your sourcing, story selection and fairness, in this post. Subscribe to the Trust Tips newsletter to get one quick, actionable tip in your inbox each week. And feel free to reach out for free, one-on-one advice from the Trusting News team @TrustingNews on Twitter or at info@TrustingNews.org.

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Joy Mayer is the director of Trusting News, a project that researches news consumers and then helps journalists earn trust and demonstrate credibility. That work…
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