Next month, the election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will come to a head. The road to Election Day 2020 has had its twists and turns, and certainly covering an election year during a pandemic is something no one saw coming. If this were a normal election year, political reporters would have followed both presidential candidates on their campaign trails as they traveled across country, holding rallies, shaking hands with voters and hosting town hall meetings. Instead, both campaigns have moved mostly online. For example, coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions looked very different this year. Instead of packing giant convention halls with delegates and members of the press, Biden accepted his party’s nomination in front of a small crowd in Delaware while Trump gave his speech in front of the White House. According to the Los Angeles Times, networks typically send as many as 300 staffers to cover a convention. Instead, some networks only sent about a handful of team members to cover them this year.
Alexandra Jaffe of the Associated Press told Politico that she basically covers the campaign from her couch now. Four years ago, when she was with NBC, “she spent much of her time on the Trump campaign plane…and when she wasn’t there she was on the road trying to educate herself, and her audience, on the politics of Ohio.”
With limited access to both presidential nominees (as well as to Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris), political reporting in 2020 now consists of taking notes while watching press conferences on television or transcribing livestreams. Not only that, journalists have had to change the way they talk to voters. There are no more “man on the street” scenarios when people are social distancing and staying home. It has forced journalists to be more creative in all aspects, from gathering leads, writing and fact-checking stories, and following up on sources.
David Chalian, CNN’s political director, told Politico he’s “directing major reportorial resources to the process of voting,” and CBS News 2020 campaign reporter Musadiq Bidar, who was expected to embed with Pence, is instead “watching livestreams from his home in the Bay Area—and tapping into sources like CBS polling data to reach voters across the country.”
Molly Ball wrote for Time magazine that “the practice of American politics may never be quite the same again.”
“Just as the virus has changed the way adults report to offices and children go to school, upending whole industries in the process, it has spurred a massive shift in the fundamental act of American democracy: how we select the President who will be charged with ending the pandemic’s reign of destruction, dealing with its aftermath and shaping the nation that rises from its ashes,” she wrote.
In a story written by Sean M. Wood, several news outlets spoke with E&P about how their newsrooms adapted to cover this year’s presidential election. They not only have to consider how they report on the campaign, they also have to consider the safety and health of their own reporters. Is it worth it to send them to rallies or polling booths? These are the kind of decisions news leaders are making each day to keep the public informed.
Whatever the outcome is after Election Day, the news won’t stop, but Nov. 4 will definitely be a turning point, not only for our country, but for our newsrooms. Whether the winner is Trump or Biden, the incoming president will have to deal with the ongoing pandemic and the lasting effects for years to come. What we need are journalists to be there every step of the way—even if it’s from their couches.
Nu Yang is editor-in-chief of Editor and Publisher. She has been with the publication since 2011.