Your ELi: Explaining Our Election Coverage

Sunday, September 29, 2019, 3:06 pm
Alice Dreger, Publisher

Yesterday brought a message from a regular reader that touched on a struggle we face every election season:

“When I opened my email with this week’s ELi newsletter, what immediately popped out was Mark Meadows' picture and further down an article about yard signs with pictures of two Altmann yard signs. Is this not a bit prejudicial given there are several other candidates running, and for people who don't read the articles, all they will be left with is the blazing announcement for Meadows and Altmann? Just saying . . .”

There are six people running for City Council, and the other four are Warren Stanfield, John Revitte, Jessy Gregg, and Lisa Babcock.

The reader knows ELi is nonpartisan – we don’t endorse candidates or make recommendations on ballot proposals. We work hard to bring you the facts that we think an engaged voter would want to know.

Every time there is an election that we need to cover, we find ourselves challenged in terms of thinking about how to bring you the news without giving any candidate an unfair advantage or disadvantage in our coverage.

That’s hard!

I struggled with how to handle the two articles mentioned by the reader – one on library advocates calling out Meadows for a misrepresentation about the library’s funding; the other about whether it’s too soon to put up campaign yard signs. I struggled with the same issue of how to handle today’s report on a special PAC mailing.

All three of these articles responded specifically to people asking ELi to look into things. In all three cases, the people writing in were critical of what they were seeing in campaigns. And in all three cases, it seemed only logical to use a lead that illustrated what the article was about.

That said, doing so can lead to “promotion” of the name and photo of one candidate over others, even when the coverage itself might bring forward facts that could incline a voter to cast a ballot against a candidate named in the headline or photo.

We could publish every article with no mention of a single candidate in a headline and with the same nonspecific image – like a “vote here” sign – but we don’t think that would help readers stay engaged with ELi’s reporting – and frankly we work too hard not to want to engage you. (Our mission is community engagement with local news.)

Even beyond the headline and photo questions, there are actually lots more questions we face every time we cover an election like the current one:

  • Should we name the candidates in order of “alphabetical by last name,” or randomly vary them?
  • Should we change the six-candidate photo lineup so that different people appear in different spots each time?
  • Should we fact-check every mailer with a published report, even when we don’t see errors – something that can lead to whoever’s campaign has more money getting more coverage from us?
  • How do we report in a “balanced” fashion when we know more about some candidates’ politics (the incumbents’) than we know about the others?

And on and on.

In practice, what we do is to keep working as a team to figure out what we think ELi’s readers would do if, like us, they were expected by the community to provide factual, nonpartisan coverage.

That said, we know we might get it wrong.

So, we also take feedback from readers, especially those who have been long-time members of ELi’s ecosystem, because we find that those people really get the mission. They may have strong views, but they know we are here to serve the community with nonpartisan work.

Think we could be doing something better? Investigating something important? Using a different approach? Tell us.

Think we got something wrong? Definitely tell us – but stay with us! Know that we are listening and constantly striving to do what you think is the best job we can do for this community.

Speaking of which: you can help us right now by taking our survey about what issues matter to you in this election.

Thank you!


Related Categories: © 2013-2020 East Lansing Info