November 3, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Journalists, we need you to be great today and in the days ahead. Steer toward facts, attribute, seek context and avoid subjective adjectives. Take better care of yourselves. Don’t get discouraged by trolls, bullies and loudmouths. They attack you because you matter. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t waste their time on you.

I assume you are more than a little busy jugging the grenades of the day so I will spend this column trying to think forward about the stories and needs that lie ahead.

Push for election court hearings to be televised or streamed

There will be court cases that will deeply affect, if not decide, some 2020 races. Do not wait until those lawsuits get filed and hearings get scheduled to push for open court hearings. The public needs to be able to trust the judicial process to render just decisions around the election, and that begins with transparency.

At every state and federal court level, these hearings should be public. Now is the time for you to push for it in your editorials. You should also contact your court administrators to ask about what will be allowed. I assume many of these would be virtual anyway, so it would require no new tech to make them public.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never allowed us to witness, with our own eyes, the live arguments before the court. The Radio and Television Digital News Association pushed hard in 2000 to get delayed audio of the court’s hearings. By not making its arguments available, the court is basically saying to Americans and the world that we could not handle the live video … or maybe it is saying to itself that the justices who have their jobs for life cannot be trusted not to perform for the camera.

Recognize the power of your images and video

A Democracy is Delicious food truck staff member delivers water to people waiting in line at a polling place, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020 in Indianapolis. (Alan Petersime/AP Images for Pizza to the Polls)

Your images and video carry a lot of power.

When you show long lines, explain why those lines are long. Explain that people in line will be allowed to vote, at whatever hour that might be. Is this a method of voter suppression or is it an expression of interest in this election?

On Election Day, it is more useful to put your emphasis on voter rights and on why people are willing to wait than on the actual wait times. Make sure you encourage — not discourage — voting with the images and interviews you choose.

Aubrey Nagle at Resolve Philadelphia recently posted a graphic that could apply to whatever unfolds in the days ahead. If and when you cover demonstrations and protests — which may come from all sides — think about the story frames you use to tell those stories. Some are more visual than others but are much less insightful.

Choose words like “slow” and “confusion” purposefully

Resolve Philadelphia also included this advice as an example of how carefully we should choose the words we use right now:

Slow is not necessarily incorrect. Reporting that makes the slower-than-usual processing of ballots sound inherently incorrect or corrupt (instead of potentially expected and reasonable) sows doubt in the democratic process.

Use “delays” and “confusion” carefully. We know that counting mail-in ballots is a time-consuming process. However, while being slow or late is the denotation of a “delay,” the common connotation is that a delay occurs as a result of some external action. Thus, using “delay” to describe the expected pace of an event incorrectly associates it with intention or interference. So, “delay” may be appropriate for how changes to the Postal Service could mean some ballots go uncounted, but may not be appropriate to describe the slow counting of those ballots.

Similarly, “confusion” should be used when there is true disagreement about something like the result of a vote, not to describe something like the expected time-consuming process of counting mail-in ballots or the inability to call races on November 3 or early November 4.

Refute premature claims of victory

There is a psychological effect called “the cogitative bias of primacy” that explains why we tend to remember the first thing we hear more than what we hear later — even if what we hear later is more solid information.

The primacy effect is critical to advertising. Companies want you to hear the good things about their products before you experience them for yourself. The Decision Lab explains that being first affects all sorts of decisions, including something called “anchoring bias.”

The anchoring bias describes an individual’s tendency to rely on initial information to anchor subsequent judgments and interpretations. The primacy effect partnered with the anchoring bias results in an individual relying too heavily on the first piece of information they receive, and then neglecting any subsequent information learned. This mix of cognitive biases can be especially problematic, as it prevents an individual from learning and making rash decisions.

Jonathan Koppell, a Yale researcher (now at Arizona State University), and Jennifer A. Steen, a Boston College researcher (now also at ASU), demonstrated the influence of the primacy effect in their 2004 study titled “The Effects of Ballot Position on Election Outcome.” Koppell and Steen found that in elections in New York City, the candidate who was listed first on the ballot was elected more than 70% of the time.

Bring all of that insight to this week’s elections. If a candidate claims victory, even if it is not backed up by data, that claim may carry significant psychological weight with the public.

If the candidate who first claims victory later loses the race, the public may find it more difficult to believe than if nobody claimed premature victory. If somebody claims a victory not backed up by data, then front-load the sentence when reporting on it with something like, “There is not enough data to support any candidate claiming victory, but Candidate X is making the claim anyway,” rather than reporting, “Candidate X is claiming victory even though the votes are still being counted.”

Don’t reward the claim with headline publicity if it is unfounded.

Know the Electoral College debate is inevitable

The one predictable conversation that arises in the days after every election is “why do we have this Electoral College system?”

There are several elements to the answer, some with better underpinnings than others. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, no country allowed a direct election of a leader. It was left up to the national leaders (almost always white men) to decide who would lead. But the point of the United States was to take power away from governmental leaders and put it in the hands of the people.

A second group said the people were not informed enough to make good decisions about who should lead. And a third group said the solution was not to have government leaders choose a president, but instead leave it up to trusted “electors” to make decisions, which was a compromise between leaving the power in the hands of the powerful and putting it in the hands of the people.

Prior to the Electoral College system, the person who got the most votes in a presidential election became president and the person who got the second most votes became the vice president. But with the emergence of political parties, the notion of having candidates who ran against each other suddenly working in the same administration was not, to say the least, ideal.

The Electoral College is rooted in colonialism. In 1804, when the 12th Amendment was passed, it was a bow to states that allowed slavery. The slaveholders were able to count each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person for the sake of congressional representation. Time explains:

If the system’s pro-slavery tilt was not overwhelmingly obvious when the Constitution was ratified, it quickly became so. For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency.

Southerner Thomas Jefferson, for example, won the election of 1800-01 against Northerner John Adams in a race where the slavery-skew of the electoral college was the decisive margin of victory: without the extra electoral college votes generated by slavery, the mostly southern states that supported Jefferson would not have sufficed to give him a majority. As pointed observers remarked at the time, Thomas Jefferson metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.

The 1796 contest between Adams and Jefferson had featured an even sharper division between northern states and southern states. Thus, at the time the Twelfth Amendment tinkered with the Electoral College system rather than tossing it, the system’s pro-slavery bias was hardly a secret. Indeed, in the floor debate over the amendment in late 1803, Massachusetts Congressman Samuel Thatcher complained that “The representation of slaves adds thirteen members to this House in the present Congress, and eighteen Electors of President and Vice President at the next election.” But Thatcher’s complaint went unredressed. Once again, the North caved to the South by refusing to insist on direct national election.

To change the constitution, there must be a supermajority vote of Congress (two-thirds) and then three-fourths of the states must ratify the change.  That means the only realistic way for the Electoral College to be abolished is if one political party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency and also had significant power in the states.

One curiosity of the 12th Amendment that you may not know is that it includes something called “the inhabitant clause.” That section says electors may not vote for presidential and vice-presidential candidates who both reside in the elector’s state — at least one of them must be an inhabitant of another state. That is why Dick Cheney and George Bush, who were both Texans, didn’t both register to vote in Texas. Cheney voted in Wyoming.

Do not lose sight of the pandemic

Your pages, websites and newscasts will be filled with data and reactions in the coming days. Don’t bury the pandemic, which is still upon us and growing. Let me give you a quick example of a time when I was guilty of such a short-sighted vision.

When I was a news director in Nashville, a tornado hit our city. It caused a lot of damage. We were quickly able to get video of the damage and started airing it. We were so consumed with the damage video that for valuable minutes, we took our eyes off the storm, which was still moving and endangering others. More than 20 years later, it is one of my biggest journalistic regrets.

See what people are concerned about

This is the latest Gallup data that tracks what is on your viewers/listener/reader’s minds.

Understand the United States has survived many contentious elections

There is always a compulsion to believe America has never been as divided as we are today, that this election is the most important in history and we will never be a united country. All of that may be true … or not.

On a day like this, it may be useful to look back at times that show us that we somehow find a way to press on together. Take, for example, the 1876 Hayes-Tilden election, just one of four elections in which the candidate who won the popular vote was not elected. White supremacists threatened voters, everyone accused each other of stealing the election and to say the candidates attacked each other is an understatement.

Recognize the art of the concession speech

Kathryn Weisser, right, of Phoenix, listens to the concession speech of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at an election night rally Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Concession speeches are an election night standard, but it has not always been that way.

Political theorist and historian Paul E. Corcoran looked back to study concession speeches in history and found them to be remarkably predictable. He told Time:

 The basics of that formula are such: the speaker says that he or she has congratulated the winner — usually not that he or she has lost; the word “concede” is rarely heard — to the opponent; the speaker calls for unity; the speaker summons supporters to both accept the result and to continue to fight for their cause in the future. Corcoran identified certain formalities of the process around the speech, too. The media demands the speech; the loser speaks of “a heroic sacrifice, not to fate but to the popular will,” as Corcoran puts it; and the winner responds by speaking of how gracious the loser was.

As that formula developed, he says, the concession speech — something that is the product of the 20th-century media environment rather than any law or election policy — took on an important role. As it became something that voters expected to hear, the call for unity became more important. As Corcoran wrote in the ’90s, it became “an institutionalized public speech act integral to democratic life and the legitimacy of authority.”

The most important part of a concession speech, Corcoran found, is not whether the candidate accepts defeat, but whether his/her followers accept the loss.

It makes sense, Corcoran says, that analysis of past concession speeches shows that the closest elections usually lead to the most unifying speeches, as both sides see the importance of coming together after a tough fight. (Landslides, on the other hand, may lead to rowdier speeches like Barry Goldwater’s in 1964 and George McGovern’s in 1972, as it’s more important to keep up party morale than to bring people together to accept a result.)

And so let me close with a collection of some of the most gracious concession speeches of our time, thanks to NPR.

Mitt Romney: I so wish — I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction. But the nation chose another leader. And so, Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation. Thank you, and God bless America.

John McCain: Senator Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it and offer him my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day, though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Bob Dole: Let me say that I’ve talked to President Clinton. We had a good visit, and I congratulated him. And I’ve said… (some of his supporters started booing)

No. No. No. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.

I have said repeatedly in this — I have said repeatedly in this campaign that the president was my opponent and not my enemy. And I wish him well. And I pledge my support in whatever advances the cause of a better America because that’s what the race was about in the first place, a better America as we go into the next century.

Al Gore: Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you. Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside. And may God bless his stewardship of this country.

The times in which we live and work

From an NPR senior producer:

From Paul Hunter at CBC’s Washington, D.C., bureau:

(Screenshot, Facebook)

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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