Like many reporters across the U.S., Votebeat Texas reporter Natalia Contreras has been preparing for the 2024 elections since last year.
It’s a momentous election year, to say the least. In Texas specifically, lawmakers filed hundreds of election-related laws during the legislative session. Some states enacted major changes in 2023: New York gave all voters the option to vote by mail; Michigan expanded the list of acceptable photo IDs; Mississippi made it a crime, in many instances, to help another voter return a mail ballot.
In fact, the entire nation saw “an unprecedented volume of state legislation changing the rules governing voting,” according to The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
It’s a topic that’s been trending up since the 2020 presidential election.
“We've been thinking about this year for about a year already,” Contreras said. “Because new laws, especially in Texas, just really are impacting the election and whether election officials are going to have the resources to pull off the election — and how that's going to impact voters ultimately.”
There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of, presenting challenges for newer and veteran reporters alike. IRE recognizes the importance of accurate and responsible coverage, and we want to be a resource for journalists during this challenging time.
“I really just want to make sure that the entire membership, or as many members as possible, are equipped with the skills they need to do quality elections coverage,” Adam Rhodes, IRE training director said. “It's probably one of the most important elections that a lot of us have seen, and I can't think of a more important time for there to be a robust and well-equipped press to cover elections.”
We asked three experts for their insight on covering the 2024 elections. Here’s some advice from Natalia Contreras of Votebeat Texas, Anna Massoglia of OpenSecrets and Derek Willis of the University of Maryland:
“Making sure that you're relying on information that is vetted is a really important aspect of it, just having that kind of media literacy. I always check two sources when I'm doing something if it's not a primary source, and even sometimes when it is, because there's just so much misinformation and disinformation swirling around on the internet. ... That's part of journalism is asking questions, questioning the legitimacy of things – but make sure you're doing that even when something appears to be very basic.” — Anna Massoglia, OpenSecrets
“Resist the temptation to frame this campaign as a repeat of earlier campaigns. It is easier for us as journalists to understand things if they've happened before. We have some context for it … and campaigns are alike in many ways. But when you do that with campaign finance data, in particular, what happens is that you tend to look for the same kinds of stories that you did two years ago or four years ago.
And what I would encourage folks to do is to not be restricted to that, not be bound by that context, but to actually look for new ways, new stories, new behaviors in the data that would tell readers something interesting and novel about what's going on.” — Derek Willis, Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland
“It just comes down to building relationships with people that run the elections in the town or the state. … Also for the primary election, it’s super important to build relationships with the political parties (since) those people are also going to be running their own elections. ... (Their contact information) should already be on your phone, in your email, today, like right now.” — Natalia Contreras, Votebeat Texas
“No matter what your beat is, understanding at least the basics of money in politics and where to find resources is important. It's something a lot of people don't think about all the time, but it relates to so many different aspects of the world generally, whether you're reporting on things like environment or energy or specific companies, or pretty much anything. There's always a ‘money in politics’ aspect that can come up at some point.
It's something that's really important, in particular, going into an election year. Companies make political contributions, specific individuals (make political contributions), there’s lobbying, there's so many different elements that can come into play and can also add value to your story, whether or not it's focused entirely on money in politics.” — Anna Massoglia, OpenSecrets
“I'm always asking for access to see some part of the process (such as a public meeting, workshop or poll worker training) — whatever the law allows me to be there for. It's so helpful. … It really opens your eyes, just like anything else, and you're able then to provide more context to readers about why something went wrong or what happened.
Because there's so much nuance to elections. Something that can sound really bad, most of the time, isn't. It could be an administrative error, or a human error, most of the time. A voting machine that went down doesn't necessarily mean there's voter fraud, right? There’s, you know, a chain of custody that goes into place. There's always a good explanation, but being able to see it with your own eyes, you're able to explain it better.” — Natalia Contreras, Votebeat Texas
“There's so much out there, I know it can get really overwhelming. … There's so many great experts who are always really happy to walk journalists through things." — Anna Massoglia, OpenSecrets
“The hard thing is if you're a student or if you're trying to break into this (beat) … you're literally physically removed from a lot of the action. You're not with the candidates. You're not out talking to voters all the time. ... But there's a whole set of structures and processes involved in putting on a campaign and putting on an election that I would really encourage students to get involved in.
So for example, understanding how elections are run at a local level is super useful information. And so if students are not covering the campaign, volunteer to actually work an election. (That) will give you a really good education and a really good grounding in how elections actually operate.” — Derek Willis, Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
IRE is also hosting a series of webinars, workshops and panels throughout the year to train members and help them feel confident with election coverage. We’ve already hosted a few webinars on general election coverage and campaign finance. You can view the video recordings of these sessions, along with panels from past conferences, here.
Here’s what else we have coming up:
More details on these webinars will be announced as soon as they are confirmed.
And of course, we’ll have an entire track of election-related panels and classes at NICAR24 in Baltimore, with sessions on public records, campaign finance data, misinformation, foreign influence and more.
You can also get guidance from the Federal Election Commission, the Committee to Project Journalists, OpenSecrets, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Politifact — just to name a few resources.
Natalia Contreras covers election administration, election security and voting access for Votebeat Texas, in partnership with the Texas Tribune. She has covered a range of topics as a community journalist including local government, public safety, immigration and social issues.
Anna Massoglia is OpenSecrets’ Editorial and Investigations Manager. Her research also includes "dark money," political ads and foreign influence. She holds degrees in political science and psychology from North Carolina State University and a J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.
Derek Willis is a lecturer in data and computational journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, where he teaches classes on data analysis and related topics. He previously covered campaign finance for ProPublica, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Congressional Quarterly.
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