COM Goes All-out to Cover Election Night 2020
Despite pandemic, project will be the most ambitious ever, involving over 100 students
There’s been nothing normal about the 2020 election. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in strict attendance limits at campaign events—with mixed adherence—and states across the country are reporting record early voting. Add to that televised presidential debates unlike any other year’s, and you begin to get a sense of how different this election season has been.
But one thing hasn’t changed, despite the pandemic: plans by College of Communication students to cover election night contests around the country. In fact, this year’s reporting will be the most ambitious to date, says BUTV10 advisor Christophor Cavalieri (COM’81), a COM assistant professor of television, with three days of coverage, involving over 100 COM students reporting on the lead-up to the election and Election Day itself across multiple platforms: WTBU, COM’s Statehouse Program, Boston University News Service (BUNS), and BUTV10.
“As the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, COM students get going. At least, that’s how I think the saying should go,” says Mariette DiChristina (COM’86), dean of COM. “Despite the pandemic, COM students are going all-out to provide the kind of thorough journalistic coverage that is critical to a functioning society. For this unprecedented election, it’s clear that we need that reliable reporting more than ever—and they are delivering.”
That’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t presented significant difficulties in coordinating this year’s coverage, The Vote 2020. As well as the fact that some student reporters aren’t physically in Boston for the semester, lockdown measures have severely curbed access to sources, among other things, not to mention reined in coverage abilities. For The Vote 2016, BUTV10 had reporters stationed at both the Clinton and Trump national headquarters—and as recently as February, WTBU sent reporters to New Hampshire to cover the Democratic primary. In contrast, with transportation time limits, the farthest most COM students are traveling this Election Day is to polling places in Brookline and Copley Square.??
Then there’s the fact that the student journalists themselves—many of them covering their first political election season, are documenting a presidential election so unprecedented that there’s no playbook to refer to.
“I covered the 1988 presidential campaign, which in my estimation was the worst campaign of all time—until this year,” says Jerry Berger, a COM lecturer in journalism and head of the Statehouse Program. “But 2020 is making ’88 look like a walk in the park.”
But don’t think anyone is intimidated. At BUTV10, students are producing three nights of election reporting—a first for the station—starting with Monday night’s election eve show. Tuesday’s programming will provide updates and analysis throughout the day from both COM’s Studio West and the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground to provide socially distanced reporting. And a week later, on November 10, the station will produce a follow-up show analyzing the results. “This design is based on the expectation that election results may require extended time and reaction,” Cavalieri says. “The students have always pushed for ambitious coverage, but the magnitude of this story is unprecedented. Not only is there an abundance of storylines in the lead-up to the election, but also potential outcome scenarios—and that calls for multiple days of content.”
In keeping with tradition, the station’s election coverage will include appearances from BUTV10 alums now working at CNN, NBC, and Fox, who will appear on air, as well as notable guests like Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, former Congressman John Tierney (D-Mass.), and Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz. “I have to commend the students; their achievement rate at securing these folks during a pandemic is impressive,” Cavalieri says.
Election night: culmination of months of reporting
For many of the COM students, this week’s coverage is the culmination of months of reporting. Students enrolled in the Statehouse Program, which funnels their reporting on Beacon Hill to local news outlets, have been on the politics beat all semester. As the Massachusetts Statehouse correspondent for the Cape Cod Times, Gwyneth Burns (COM’22) has published stories on felons’ voting rights, the financing behind the Yes on 2 campaign, and issues impacting young voters. “This is definitely an interesting year to be covering elections,” Burns says.
Among the program’s election coverage will be a story on staffing of polling places, the mechanics of early voting, and social media’s role in polarizing the election. The reporting will appear in local newspapers throughout the state, then be uploaded to the BUNS website—including Burns’ Yes on 2 piece, which first appeared in the Hampshire Gazette.
WTBU has also been producing coverage of the 2020 election for months, thanks to a new section run by elections program coordinators Stella Lorence (COM’22) and Lily Kepner (COM’23), with journalists working remotely from all over the country.
WTBU News director Griffin Buch (COM’21) says there are clear advantages to working with a spread-out group this year. “I have two team members in Miami providing great swing-state coverage from the ground there and sending it back to Boston,” Buch says.
Following their 6 pm Tuesday night broadcast, anchors will provide live commentary from 8 pm to 2 am from the WTBU studio, augmented by live interviews and prerecorded packages, as well as updates from WTBU and BUNS news reporters stationed around the city.
I covered the 1988 presidential campaign, which in my estimation was the
worst campaign of all time—until this year.”
WTBU reporters have been covering issues ranging from the evangelical vote and the influence of the LGBTQ vote in this year’s election to packing the Supreme Court and the effectiveness of blue-state activists sending postcards to red-state voters. “The students are undaunted, resourceful, and creative beyond anything I could have imagined,” says WTBU faculty advisor Anne Donohue (COM’88), a COM associate professor of journalism.
That sentiment is echoed by BUNS faculty advisor Michelle Johnson, a COM associate professor of the practice of journalism, whose reporters will be blogging live throughout the day Tuesday as well as contributing to WTBU and BUTV10 coverage. “I think it’s great that we can still offer them this experience,” she says. “Even if it’s not the exact experience they thought they were going to get, they’re going to be ready for real-world journalism.”
What does worry Johnson, however, is what that real-world journalism could look like as election night results come in. After videos of reporters getting arrested, tear-gassed, and shot at with rubber bullets during Black Lives Matter protests circulated earlier this year, discussions began at COM about purchasing gas masks for student reporters. “We’re asking, ‘What’s in their kits? Do we need to equip them [with protective gear] when they go out to report?’” Johnson says.
With distrust of the media at a near all-time high, faculty say they are readying students for what to expect out in the field. “I open each semester with the phrase, ‘Welcome, enemies-of-the-people-in-training,’” Berger says. “Whether it’s just with their own ‘alternative facts,’ people are going to be out to get them.”
For now, though, the main concern of students is covering 2020’s vote as thoroughly as possible, while making sure everyone is masked and properly socially distanced. And of course, making sure that a few election-night traditions remain.
“We are going to have election-night pizza,” Johnson confirms. “I’ve already approved the expenditure.”