Recommendations for Media Covering the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

President Trump has lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College. And yet, the president and many of his Republican allies are refusing to accept the declared outcome of a free and fair election. 

We should be prepared for this. President Trump and other GOP elites were questioning the results in the days and weeks as voters were going to the polls. The president and members of his party falsely claimed that there is significant and widespread voter fraud through illegal mail-in ballots, and had already stated that the election would be illegitimate if the president didn’t win. President Trump called on supporters to monitor the polls independently from established rules around poll watching, and in the lead up to Election Day on multiple occasions the president refused to commit to accepting the results of the 2020 election and to a peaceful transition of power. The president and members of his party made their intent to not accept any outcome other than a second term for the president very clear.

Now we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation where the results of the election are clear but the losing candidate has not conceded.  Professional news organizations bear a particularly important responsibility to help the public navigate what are a confusing barrage of false claims about the nature of the election. We recommend the following steps to center verifiable information, highlight the established processes by which ballots were cast and counted, and uphold democratic norms.

Distinguish between legitimate, evidence-based challenges to vote counts and illegitimate ones that are intended to delay or call into question accepted procedures. Do not amplify the illegitimate claims.

Only give coverage to any legitimate, evidence-based contestations of the ballot or uncertainty about vote counts that may arise. Do not give a platform to statements that are not grounded in clear and compelling evidence, no matter who is making the statement. Do not amplify false claims about the process of voting or the outcome by candidates, political parties, or other strategic political interests. If there is a need for reporting on a newsworthy statement by a leading political figure, adopt the “truth sandwich” technique: lead with the truth and then explain how the claim is false and conclude by reiterating what is true. Always bear in mind that repeating a false claim, even if to fact-check it, risks increasing the likelihood that your audiences will think it is true.

Employ a “democracy-worthy” frame.

Filter decisions about how to cover the election through the lens of democracy. This requires a willingness to emphasize what is known and verified, avoid reporting unproven or baseless claims, and repeat important stories about the security of the vote. Consider what is “democracy-worthy.” This means resisting the amplification of claims and storylines that are dangerous to the integrity of elections and the peaceful transfer of power. Recognize the dangers of relying on partisan operatives as major sources of news content. Consider lessons from science reporting: having expert sources, not partisan sources, best serves the public. It is especially important that journalists promote intra-partisan disagreement when attempting to counter disinformation—such as elevating the voices of those Republicans that accept the outcome of the election.

Don’t use social media to stand in for election information.

It is imperative that journalists stick closely to verified information about the election. This means not amplifying social media posts where people or organizations—including many with a stake in the outcome including foreign influence operations—will be making their own calls and interpreting limited data. Resist covering social media sentiment about the election and conspiracy theories as a story in their own right. Do not amplify false statements about the election process or outcome. Strive to avoid letting the discourse on social media influence the tone and focus of coverage. Recognize that social media do not represent the electorate and social media often amplify the most extreme voices. Social media can shape journalists’ perceptions of what is newsworthy and what public sentiment is in highly skewed ways. This is particularly important for local television news. Most people learn about elections from television; evidence-based local journalism can have a calming effect on public anxieties.

Use state- and local-level expertise to provide locally-relevant information.

State- and county-level experts, including state election directors, secretaries of state, as well as local university faculty and journalists, played a vital role in helping to explain and contextualize vote counting processes. These and similar state and local experts remain critical sources of information now. They can provide key insights for explaining discrepancies between actual election processes and false allegations of malfeasance and can help decipher the credibility of various legal challenges. Knowledge of specific electoral systems and procedures in the states, and their processes for adjudicating disputes, is imperative. 

Embrace existing democratic institutions.

This has been a highly unusual election cycle. Acknowledge that these are challenging times. But even so, the U.S. election system is reliable and secure overall, a conclusion that was confirmed in 2020, just as it has been during previous elections through extensive research. Your reporting can reduce uncertainty and elevate citizen efficacy by highlighting processes and procedures (e.g., “this is how elections work”). 

In keeping with the previous recommendation to seek out state and local experts, election offices are important democratic institutions and natural experts to center in your coverage of post-Election Day processes and procedures. Emphasizing their expertise and knowledge can educate the public about what is and is not “normal” as new audiences are tuning in to post-election certification for the first time. Explicitly covering procedures for ballot counting, post-election auditing, recounts, and certification helps to demystify these processes. Information on how the public can observe or livestream key steps in the vote-counting process can promote transparency from election officials and improve public trust in the process.

You can also emphasize and explain the legal processes used to adjudicate claims of voter fraud or election errors. Where illegitimate claims have been rejected by the courts, highlight when, where, and how those claims resolved.

Avoid using the language of ‘chaos’, which undermines public trust.

Unequivocally Call Upon the President to Concede 

The U.S. Constitution is clear that the “The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.” News coverage should unambiguously and repeatedly remind the public of that fact, and explain how the Electoral College works and electors are chosen in the states. Journalists should underscore that the presidential candidate with a losing number of Electoral College votes should concede. Once all legal contests are exhausted, call on candidates to concede if the results are not in their favor. Call on party leaders to publicly address their supporters about the importance of a peaceful transfer of power and recognizing the legitimacy of the next president.

State frequently and clearly that democracy requires peaceful transfer of power.