December 30, 2020

For eight years now, even before I was on the editorial team, I’ve been glued to Poynter’s analytics dashboards.

What’s resonating with our audiences? What do they want to know about the media? Thinking back on a time before we had such data, it now feels like we were driving a car with a blocked-out windshield.

It’s heartening to see all parts of Poynter represented in our most-read stories this year — the International Fact-Checking Network, PolitiFact, MediaWise — along with our daily newsletters and dogged reporting about local news and even an archived piece from Poynter’s early days. It’s clear that the success of some of those most-read stories was driven by our most traditional audience, journalists, while others found more mainstream appeal.

Here are a handful of our top stories, why we wrote them and why we think our audiences enjoyed them, in the authors’ own words.

Here are the newsroom layoffs, furloughs,and closures caused by the coronavirus

By Kristen Hare. Originally published April 6. 

I hate that this piece is among our most-read this year, but I understand why it is. After a few weeks this spring covering layoffs, we decided to start keeping track of each layoff we could find. Often, big layoffs will get their own stories, but we heard from so many people where there were one or two layoffs. When you put them all together, you can see the full picture of what the pandemic has done to the media. – Kristen Hare

Chris Wallace masterfully turned in what might have been the best TV interview ever with President Donald Trump

By Tom Jones in the Poynter Report newsletter. Published July 20.

For most of the past four years, whenever President Donald Trump appeared on Fox News, he was met by an interviewer who lobbed softballs and, let’s face it, kissed up to him.

But when he sat down with Fox News’ Chris Wallace for a “Fox News Sunday” interview in July, Trump ran into someone who wasn’t there to slap him on the back. He ran into someone who was going to kick him in the rear if he tried to mislead or lie his way through important questions about COVID-19, race relations and even Trump’s cognitive abilities. It was an interview so good that Axios’ Jonathan Swan praised it on Twitter, which was interesting because Swan eventually also had a tough-as-nails interview with Trump.

What made this story so refreshing to write was that Wallace showed us all what a tough, but fair interview with Trump looks like. Trump might have thought he was in for another relaxing interview with Fox News, but Wallace showed that he was there to do his job, and do it well. To see anyone — but especially someone from Fox News — hold Trump accountable the way Wallace did resonated with readers. Wallace showed that you didn’t have to be rude, but still could hold the president accountable, and that’s something that connected with Poynter readers. But that brings me to … – Tom Jones

President Trump’s interview is an embarrassing low mark for him, Fox News and, especially, interviewer Maria Bartiromo

By Tom Jones in the Poynter Report newsletter. Published Nov. 30.

As great as the Wallace interview with Trump was, that’s how bad the Maria Bartiromo interview was. Even by Fox News’ standards, this was an embarrassing display of propping up the president. With Bartiromo tossing up softballs (actually, CNN’s Brian Stelter compared it more to tee-ball), Trump spent the better part of an hour making bogus claims of election fraud.

What made this story interesting was that the interview wasn’t conducted by one of the usual Fox News Trump supporters such as Sean Hannity or the cheerleaders on “Fox & Friends.” It wasn’t even conducted by one of the over-the-top sycophants such as Judge Jeanine Pirro or Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs. No, this interview was done by a previously well-respected journalist in Bartiromo. To watch it was like watching a dumpster fire. That is to say it was pretty disgusting, but you couldn’t really turn away from it either. That’s why this story connected with readers. They simultaneously cringed at the details, but they couldn’t help but want to absorb it all, too. – Tom Jones

Be patient on election night 2020. Counting the returns will take time.

By Louis Jacobson and Amy Sherman. Originally published June 18 by PolitiFact.

As a website covering politics, we have focused intently, for months, on how the votes were going to be cast and counted. As soon as it became clear that the pandemic was making this a heavily mail-ballot election, the experts we talked to made clear that it would force important changes in how, and how fast, the votes would be counted on Election Night. So we wrote a number of stories broadly on election administration as well as what ordinary Americans should expect about how election night could become election week. Fortunately, we were pretty close on that latter metric. – Louis Jacobson

It became clear to me that the pandemic election year would be like none I had seen in the past when I saw the photos from the April primary in Wisconsin where a voter in a long line held up a sign saying “this is ridiculous” (credit to our PolitiFact partner Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) We started to think more about our own coverage of the upcoming primaries and general election and the potential for misinformation, including what would happen when it took days to count results in some states. In 2020, we saw a significant increase in efforts by media outlets and election officials from both parties to proactively educate voters about what to expect during election season. – Amy Sherman

Can the government legally force you to wear a mask? and If you owe child support payments, you might not get a coronavirus stimulus check

By Al Tompkins in the Covering COVID-19 newsletter. Published June 22 and April 2, respectively. 

Timing is everything. The mask story interested me because it is a question I had: What are the limits of government authority in a pandemic? And does it matter that the government once said masks were not helpful and then changed the guidance?

And there were questions about ordinances that forbid wearing masks in public in normal times that were just going to be cast aside. There were questions about whether the very government that would force you to wear a mask would not force the president to wear one. This is a story, issue and  debate that affects every single person at some level. It is also the kind of story that interests people because humans just don’t like being forced to do something even if they don’t actually mind doing it. They just hate being TOLD to do it.

I generally think the best stories are the ones that speak to money, family, health, safety, community and justice. The idea that the government would send stimulus money to people who owed back taxes interested me. In fact, the only people who were not going to get stimulus checks, even when they qualified for the money, were people who owed child support. I suspect the story was circulated widely by two major groups of people; those who were owed child support and those who owe it. Both need the money. So that story picked up on the motivators of money, family, justice and community in that there are communities of both the debtors and the creditors. It is a can’t-miss kind of topic. – Al Tompkins

How to use your phone to spot fake images surrounding the U.S.-Iran conflict

By Cristina Tardáguila. Published Jan. 7.

The International Fact-Checking Network sees itself as a media literacy hub. We offer many fact-checking workshops and, every time I am the trainer, I see how impactful it is to show people how easy it can be to assess the veracity of an image. This is usually the most exciting part of our classes; when participants understand that they can be fact-checkers, too — at any time and for no cost.

At the beginning of 2020, tensions between the U.S and Iran made people share lots and lots of hoaxes — some of them were screenshots from video games! In this article, I tried to be as didactic as I am during IFCN’s workshops. By presenting different free tools that can be used to fact-check an image, my goal was to help prevent the spread of false content. And I believe the timing was crucial! This URL traveled far away not only because it offers a really useful guide, but also because it was published when people most needed it. – Cristina Tardáguila

Some good news on the COVID-19 front? We fact-checked 10 positive coronavirus claims.

By Thea Barrett. Published March 31.

During what felt like the darkest period of the coronavirus lockdown, we saw a shift in the types of claims being pitched by our teen fact-checkers. In a time with so much uncertainty — and in the midst of their schools being shut down — these teens were wanting to fact-check feel-good stories. Pitches were often accompanied by “I really hope this is legit.” At that point, it became clear that our audience was most likely also in need of some uplifting news on their timelines. This story is a compilation of bright spots from the Teen Fact-Checking Network that we wrapped up together to amplify their work. – Alexa Volland, MediaWise multimedia reporter who leads the Teen Fact-Checking Network

If Kamala Harris is also of Asian descent, why does the press only label her ‘Black?’

By William Wong. Originally published Feb. 10, 2004.

I made note of the partial racial-ethnic labeling of Kamala Harris in 2004 in part because I had been a newspaper reporter and, later, a commentator who often wrote on Chinese American and Asian American topics. In the 1970s, I wrote a number of in-depth news features for The Wall Street Journal’s front page on Chinese American and Asian American subjects.

In the 1980s, I became an op-ed columnist at The Oakland Tribune where I regularly took on such matters. In both cases, I believe I was either the only one doing so or was one of the very few in mainstream print journalism to be doing so.

By the time Kamala Harris became a significant public figure, my journalistic tentacles were acutely alert to how the American press reported and commented on so-called “yellow” issues in the larger context of deeply complicated American racial discussions. So when I noticed, as I wrote in this piece, the half-correct racial-ethnic identity of Harris, it became a natural topic for me to say something.

Why is it relevant today? Well, she’s now the vice president-elect, a very big deal in both gender and racial-ethnic representation at the highest level of American politics. In addition, our country and society have been more racially and ethnically diverse since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

This development is playing out loudly, proudly (in the eyes of some), and sickeningly (in the eyes of many others) in the present (this year’s presidential election and the “racial reckoning” following the George Floyd killing) and undoubtedly will continue to do so in the future.

In many printed stories, echoed in many TV reports, about Kamala Harris’ candidacy for president and then her selection by Joe Biden as his vice-presidential choice, she is racially and ethnically identified more completely. “… first Black woman …” “… first Asian American …” “… first South Asian American woman …”

Those three labels (usually the Black one with one or the other Asian one) are more usual than unusual in 2020. I count that as journalistic progress. – William Wong

Chuck Norris felled by a tiny virus? Don’t believe it

By Alex Mahadevan in the Coronavirus Facts newsletter, originally by Madison Czopek for PolitiFact. Published June 17.

Madison: Celebrity death hoaxes are pretty common, but we don’t always decide to fact-check them at PolitiFact because, in the age of social media, a celebrity can usually just declare themselves “alive.” This joking claim got a lot of traction online, though, most likely because it also involved the biggest news story of the year: the coronavirus pandemic. It seemed frighteningly plausible that the virus could get to anyone — even Chuck Norris himself. With so many unknowns and so much apprehension, my editors and I all jumped at the chance to work on a check that was a bit more lighthearted and reassured people Norris was alive and well. I think a break from the heavier news was just what everyone was looking for, and I suspect that’s why it ended up being popular among readers. – Madison Czopek

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw deadly false claims about cures for the virus, such as viral posts about drinking bleach. It was clear we fact-checkers were headed for a dark place in the online discourse. So when I saw Madison’s Chuck Norris check, I thought it would bring some much-needed levity to what remains a serious public health crisis. I think we naturally want to laugh in the face of incomprehensible dread (as Norris often does on “Walker, Texas Ranger”), and analytics show our Coronavirus Facts readers did. And now for my favorite Chuck Norris joke: Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits. – Alex Mahadevan

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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