What are the impacts of newsroom training to reimagine political coverage? 

The past few years have seen a surge in newsroom cohorts and training programs to help upskill and support the needed change in the journalism industry. Many newsroom leaders and funders are right to wonder whether these programs actually move the needle on what they promise to support.  In my research into one such program, which was aimed at transforming political coverage, I found that the participating newsrooms did change their practices and their ideas about how to cover elections and democracy. Below are my top-level findings.

The 22 newsrooms that participated in the training program called Advancing Democracy (formerly known as Democracy SOS) found their journalists produced political content that utilized more engagement practices, focused more on solutions, and comprised far fewer game-frame stories, my new industry report shows. 

In addition, the journalists learned how to build trust, how to move from problem-focused to solutions-oriented stories, how to be transparent, how to truly listen to communities in new ways, how to nurture different audiences, and how to encourage “good conflict” instead of polarizing products. 

Organized and implemented by industry trainers Hearken, Solutions Journalism Network and Trusting News, Advancing Democracy offered a nine-month training program during 2022, completed ahead of the midterm elections. The organizers contracted with me and my research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to see what impact the fellowship might have had on the 22 newsrooms and their journalism.  (A second 20-newsroom program also was held in 2023.)  

In two reports, I laid out the results from surveys with the participants, a review of the trainings themselves, interviews with the journalists, and a large-scale content and textual analysis comparing political content published from participating newsrooms in 2018, 2020, and 2022. Further, preliminary analysis from a third report that will evaluate how disengaged audiences in the coverage areas are responding to the changes in content shows that the revised practices do build trust with them. This medium post lays out some of what we found. 

To apply for the next round of trainings, ahead of the 2024 elections, please go here.

Did the journalists transform because of the trainings?

For the first set of findings, we looked at the content of the training and the responses from the reporters and editors who participated; in other words, we interrogated the production of political coverage. Participants reported to us that the fellowship: 

  • “had a significant influence on the participants in both mindset and new routines and practices.”
  • “presented an opportunity for us to take the time to reflect more broadly about what we wanted the purpose of our journalism to be, and who we wanted to serve and how, and asking critical questions that we should always be asking but we don’t always take the time for a million reasons to do.” 
  • “played a crucial role in identifying and respecting these transformative changes in journalistic practices.”
  • “had an impact in creating a vibrant network of journalists doing the work to transform simultaneously… They felt hearing from other journalists new strategies to overcome common challenges freshened their own capacity to rise above.”

In all, 21 of the 22 participating newsrooms documented 206 news articles or other products (FAQs, Q/As, Voter/Election Guides, reader surveys) that they asserted were directly influenced by the trainings. Many liked that the training offered the following:

  • Small-group discussions in which people could be “vulnerable” and talk explicitly about challenges of the job to do engagement work.
  • Learning about word choice and other simple strategies for polarizing topics.
  • Learning to think differently about how even just a little bit of hand-holding and explanatory information can help gain trust and understanding from audiences.
  • Examples for how to get election coverage more engaging and accessible.
  • Sharing examples about what is working in some newsrooms.
  • Learning to do stakeholder, audience and source mapping. “It’s an amazing way to think of stories or coverage areas,” one participant told us.
  • A variety of experts to teach skills throughout the trainings.

We also connected with the participants six months after the fellowship ended and found that they were still utilizing skills learned during Advancing Democracy. One participant said: 

I went to 20 meetings with neighborhoods, associations, and groups, and I told them who I was, and then I said, “I’m here for you to tell me what we need to be writing about. I’m here for you to tell me how I can do my job better.” And they liked it. They were receptive. They filled out a questionnaire for us. They talked to us. Some of them were mad at us. Some of them were saying we were being unfair, but they were grateful that we were there listening to them before we started our reporting.

They have organized workshops in the newsroom, bringing home concepts and strategies from the trainings. Said one participant, “At the moment we are… getting some of the writers together and doing some workshops within the paper to take the experiences that I’ve had and share those with other writers.” They listen and learn in more organic and effective ways such as helping people both in the newsroom and in forums to disagree differently. Said another participant: 

If I do come across a story that deals with a really heavy topic or there’s a lot of voices and conflicting opinions, I go back to, okay well what is the best way to convey this in a way that you won’t be fanning the flames? I go over and I look at the verbs and the adjectives that I use to make sure that nothing can be interpreted as being negative or framing someone in the light where they’re specifically a villain or something like that.

Did the content actually change?

For this second part, we collected and sifted through 5,683 political stories from the participating newsrooms for 2018, 2020, and 2022 via an automated “scraper,” throwing out any stories that were not bylined by the specific news outlet (such as wire stories), those that were not directly related to politics, and those that were labeled as opinion. Ultimately, we worked with some 1,388 political stories from 19 news outlets. We analyzed stories for a number of variables, themes and values taught specifically by the training and paid particular attention to the major principles of Advancing Democracy that could be discerned in content – engagement, solutions journalism, and transparency — both qualitatively and quantitatively. We found changes in all three, with a 28% increase in “engagement” stories between 2018 and 2022 and a decrease by the same amount for “horserace framing.” At this moment, we cannot say definitively that these changes occurred because of the training, but there is a high correlation that is backed up by the qualitative data, and we are working on coding a set of control stories to aid in a closer determination. 

Overall, we found substantial differences in approach, including movement away from game frames and towards explicit attempts to be more transparent and relevant to their particular constituencies. With its five pillars of principles – Good Conflict, Asset Framing, Solutions Journalism, Engaged Elections, and Trust Building– Advancing Democracy seems to have significantly moved the needle on a more holistic journalism transformation. 

At Trusting News, we learn how people decide what news to trust and turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We train and empower journalists to take responsibility for demonstrating credibility and actively earning trust through transparency and engagement. Learn more about our work, vision and teamSubscribe to our Trust Tips newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Sue Robinson, University of Wisconsin-Madison