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Everyone pays attention to the BIG elections. Registered voters are more likely to vote for a presidential election than one for town mayor or county executive. But in actuality, a local position like town mayor has more impact on a citizen’s day-to-day life and pocketbook than the President. And while citizens are busy watching what’s happening in the White House, they don’t even realize all the taxes and regulations being passed in their own backyard.
We need more citizen journalists covering local elections for school board member, city councilman, or town sheriff. Having a good grasp of local election knowledge ahead of time can really add value to your stories. Here are some quick tips to help you sift through campaign season in your community.
Know your precinct/district/state:
If you want to understand the local election process, you must first understand the area you’re covering. Luckily for reporters, there are several good websites that give out great local information. By knowing the demographic makeup of an area, it can help lead to more accurate and fact-filled stories. Take a good look at the historical breakdown of your coverage area. Does it typically swing Democrat or Republican? When was the last time someone from each party won the seat? All of this information is out there, and makes for great details in a story. Try using Davesredistricting.com and Ballotpedia. You can always find interesting data at your Secretary of State’s website, or your county board of elections.
Learn your election laws:
Next, you must know how election laws work in the state or county you are covering. By spending a little time getting to know the ground rules, you give yourself an advantage when fishing for information. You can better tell when the rules are NOT being followed and blow the whistle on foul play. Each state has a set of election laws that are accessible to the general public. A quick Google search for your Secretary of State’s office will get you to the correct page. Here you will find information including voting systems, absentee voting, poll watching, etc. Also, find your local voting precinct if you plan to cover election night results. Knowing where to be can help you find sources to speak with, and help get an idea for how results are shaping up.
Research every candidate:
Depending on the race you’re covering, and what point in the election you’re in, there will likely be multiple candidates vying for a given office. Try to get as much information about a candidate before you actually write a story on them. For example, find out what issues they are talking about. A quick look at their campaign website, or a visit to one of their social media pages should tell you what they will be focusing on. This information will provide good background for any stories you write. You also want to find out what their opponents are saying? There are two sides to every story and you want to be ahead of the false accusations and name calling. If one candidate says the other has a terrible record on education, don’t take his word for it. Find out what evidence might suggest that, if any at all.
It’s also a great idea to get to know each candidate’s staff. This of course depends on the size of the race. If it is a local school board election, a candidate is unlikely to have an official staff. However, if you’re covering a state wide election, candidates will often recruit a campaign manager or communications director. It’s important to know these people, which will allow you to go straight to the source when you need a quote, or clarification on a topic.
Don’t be an advocate:
The most important tip for each citizen journalist is drawing a line between covering a campaign and working for a campaign. Remember, if you’re writing a story about a candidate, you must set aside any personal partisan leanings or affiliations you may have. It is especially important to know this if you write for Watchdog Wire, which is a part of a non-profit journalism organization. The words you use to describe a candidate or political event are critical. Your writing should not instruct people to get active. Action is the key here. It is perfectly acceptable to inform readers of upcoming events that include date, time and location just as long as you are not encouraging readers to get involved. What you do in your private time should be kept separate from your election reporting.
Use outside resources:
To go along with some of the other tips mentioned here, try to reach out to as many sources as you can. For instance, if you live near a college campus, odds are good that the school will have a political science department. Contact a professor to get a quote about the race you’re covering. If you live in an area with political non-profit organizations, seek a comment from someone with knowledge of the election. State Policy Network is a great resource to identify a think tank in your state. Leading up to an election, people love to know what the polls are showing. There are plenty of polling sites that breakdown individual races like Real Clear Politics. Larger news publications and blogs also tend to put out local poll numbers. Finally, check candidates’ social media pages regularly. Great leads can always be found by following what candidates and political parties are saying on Facebook or Twitter. Don’t be afraid to include these comments in your stories- they count as public record.
Writing during elections can be tricky. As Election Day nears, media coverage always picks up. If you’re well prepared with research ahead of time, you will be ready for any challenge that may get in your way. If you have any questions on covering elections, or would like clarification on a tip, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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