Politics, an Election and a Pandemic: Covering the 2020 Election as a Student Journalist

Moss Brennan discusses election night results with Editor-in-Chief Jackie Park at The Appalachian. Photo: Kara Haselton/The Appalachian

My professors knew my class work would start to lag behind the closer we got to Election Day. Every semester, I make it a point to let my professors know that the work I do as a journalist comes first. And this semester, my class work lagged behind for good reason. 

As political editor for The Appalachian Student Newspaper at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, I had one goal: inform students and the community about the election. Boone is settled in Western North Carolina near the Tennessee border in Watauga County. The population of the county is about 50,000 people. Appalachian State alone has more than 20,000 students and even more faculty and staff. 

Youth voter turnout was expected to play an important role in this year’s election so my main goal was to inform our student readers as much as possible on the candidates and issues before they voted. As a student journalist, I have the unique experience of being part of my readership demographic. The Appalachian’s entire staff is made up of students. We, unlike larger media organizations, have a better understanding of what students want their media to cover and how, but we don’t know everything, so engaging with readers is important, especially with college students. We want to meet them where they are. So, we ask. This election cycle, we found ways to inform and engage our readers based on what they told us.

During the primary, many students did not know basic election procedures, like only being able to vote at their assigned precinct. So I resolved to dedicate as much time as I could to writing stories that not only informed readers about candidates, but also informed them about how to actually vote in an election. North Carolina only has same-day registration during the early voting period so our readers also needed to know how and when to register to vote. 

Moss Brennan and his fellow reporters at The Appalachia watch as election totals come in. Photo: Kara Haselton/The Appalachian

COVID-19 also changed the normal voting process for many North Carolinians this year, including absentee ballots and polling locations. College students also faced an increased worry that campus would shut down and on campus students would be forced to move back home before they could vote. All these compounding issues on top of the normal class load — online for many — proved tough for students and student journalists alike. We focused our coverage on providing the most up to date information on how COVID-19 would affect the election and what students needed to know most when it came to voting during a pandemic. 

Outside of the county announcing how they would clean each polling site during the election, the biggest change was how voters would stand in line to cast their vote. A few days before early voting started, the county Board of Elections made it so the line at the Appalachian State campus voting site – the most popular site in the county – would be outside, unless there was severe weather. This was critical to get out to our readers – Boone tends to go from beautiful, clear skies to thunderstorms in the blink of an eye. That meant our student voters needed to prepare to potentially stand outside in inclement weather. 

But we did also want our student readers to be informed about the candidates. For statewide and national offices, we partnered with six other college newsrooms across the state in a collaborative effort called One Vote NC to create a voter guide of our state representatives for all of our students — those who were voting in the county of their college or their home county. 

For me, the local election was one of the most important aspects of the election to cover. And students — who are sometimes only in the county for nine months out of the year — don’t really focus on those. And why should they? Why would a student who doesn’t necessarily call the county home want to learn about what the county board of commissioners does? Why would they care about what the soil and water conservation supervisor does on a daily basis? Because those hyper-local candidates impact their daily lives when they’re on campus at Appalachian State, even if they don’t call it home full time. And many of them were still choosing to vote there.

The key to convincing our student readers to care about these local races was to create interactive, short pieces of content they could digest fairly easily. Early on in the semester, we shared a survey (modeled after one The Daily Tar Heel at UNC Chapel Hill created) asking students what they cared about most in this upcoming election. Then created questions to send to local, state and federal candidates to answer for our voter guide. From those candidate answers, we created quizzes students could take to figure out who they align with most. 

Instead of trying to chase every small story — and there’s been a lot this year — we focused on clear and easy ways people could get the information they needed about how to vote and to help them decide who to vote for. 

And I believe it worked. We had record turnout in Watauga County with more than 32,000 people voting, compared to 30,200 in 2016. The county itself has less than 46,000 registered voters. The on-campus voting site, which provided early and Election Day voting, saw more than 6,700 voters, which was a 300 person increase over 2016. Youth voting numbers surged in Watauga County and across the country. 

People reached out to say that the articles The Appalachian put out helped them make informed decisions when they voted. And as a student journalist who missed class and work to cover this election, that means it was worth it. 

So now, as myself and so many others wait to see what will happen in the coming days and weeks, I’ll get back to my “first” role for now: student. 

Moss Brennan is a senior at Appalachian State University studying journalism with a minor in media studies. He was the editor-in-chief for The Appalachian Student News Group for the 2019-20 school year and has served as the news editor and in-depth editor. Currently, he is the political editor covering the 2020 election and a freelance journalist in Western North Carolina. Moss was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, where he attended Durham School of the Arts. He started his journalism career with the high school newspaper, The Gallery, and later became editor-in-chief.

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