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Setting a Course for a Narrative Shift

Need a blurb here. 

Who will benefit from this?

The tools in this section are geared for editors and reporters who have been actively covering a particular topic or system and want to explore new ways to frame, expand, and activate your reporting. 

What will I learn?

  • Identify entrenched or problematic narratives around a particular issue and opportunities to shift or inform them through your journalism;

  • Evaluating existing coverage or a reporting project to identify gaps and opportunities for your storytelling and community engagement.

Variable (3 HRS - 2 DAYS)

Flip chart paper, sticky notes, markers, pens, & paper. 

Part 1 : Find your North Star

Start your session with a discussion about your goals and motivations for reporting on elections. This discussion will help your team understand the role your reporting plays in how people think and talk about elections, and identify outcomes that constitute success in your coverage. We call this finding the "North Star" that will guide your approach. 

Step 1: Each participant writes down their answers to these questions (5 min):

  • What personal values and beliefs drive your reporting on elections?

  • Why is your reporting on the election important? What purpose does it serve?

  • What specific communities are you trying to reach and represent in your reporting?

  • What are two specific or bold outcomes that would constitute success for your reporting? For example, it could be a certain number of voters contacting your newsroom with questions, new subscriptions or memberships, or an increase in voter turnout. 

Step 2: Pair up with a colleague and share what you wrote. (5 min)

Step 3: Return to the full group. Discuss your conversations and conclusions. Take note of the similarities that come up across your responses. (5-10 min)

Step 4: Write a list of your overlapping values and goals to serve as your team’s collective "North Star." (5-10 min.)

Part 1

Part 2: Chaos mapping 

Chaos mapping is a flexible, collaborative tool that can help you understand the structure of a complex system. Similar to mind mapping, the goal is to visualize what forces are involved in your issue and how they’re connected.

Step 1: Using sticky notes, each participant writes down as many forces that relate to the election you're covering as you can think of, writing one force per sticky note. The goal is to identify as many forces as possible: Quantity over quality. Not every force will be negative, or a problem. Some forces can be positive things happening in the system. Examples of election forces could be: voter turnout, disinformation on Facebook, operating hours for polls, or specific issues at the heart of candidates' campaigns. (5 min)

Step 2: Each person reads their sticky notes aloud and sticks them to a blank, spacious wall. As new forces are added to the wall, begin clustering them with similar forces. (5-10 min)

Step 3: Once everyone has shared their forces, take a step back. Notice where there is a density of sticky notes around particular forces  Ask: Is anything missing? Spend a few minutes adding new forces. 

Step 4: Continue clustering the forces you've identified into similar groups. Circle each group and give those set of forces a name, e.g. "money," "national conventions," "social media," “gender,” “race,” etc.

Step 5: Connect the forces: Have everyone take turns with a marker and draw lines between the individual forces that are connected to one another. Ask: Which forces directly influence each other?  Don't worry about drawing neat lines.  The goal is to make as many connections as you can. 

Step 6: After you've drawn plenty of connections, take another step back and observe which forces have the most lines going in and out. Keep these forces in mind for the second half of this exercise and consider orienting your reporting more deeply on those areas. Your map should now look something like this:

Part 2
Narrative shift - step 2.png
Part 3

Part 3: Gaps & assumptions

The chaos map you've created has a limitation: It only represents the knowledge of your group and contains assumptions you've made about how elections function and how you, as journalists, should cover them. 

Now, your team will surface the gaps and assumptions that are baked into the map you've created, which can illuminate possibilities for your reporting.

This is a good place to ask whether the group that is participating is adequately diverse in terms of personal background, reporting interests and experience, etc. The diversity of the forces you’ve identified and the gaps you’ve revealed will reflect the diversity of the group. 

Step 1: In groups of 2-3, or as individuals, think about how your reporting is reflected in the map and ask:

  • What areas of the map has our coverage focused on in the past? 

  • What areas of the map do you want to focus on more?


Each group or individual should write answers to these questions on sticky notes and share their responses with the full group. As everyone shares, place the sticky notes on an open wall. 


Step 2: Consider some of the larger, prevailing assumptions, attitudes and beliefs about elections in your coverage area.

  • What assumptions shape how the people you serve view politics? 

  • What unspoken beliefs and worldviews shape the way we talk about elections?


Write at least three larger assumptions, one per sticky note, along with who may hold that assumption. Examples could include: “My vote doesn't matter,”  “Politicians only listen to people with money,” “X community only votes for X party.” Have everyone read their sticky notes out loud and add them beside the chaos map.  (10-15 min)

Step 3: Identify some of the core assumptions that you personally hold about the forces in the map you've created. Each participant writes down at least three personal assumptions, beliefs, or attitudes, one per sticky note. Examples of assumptions could include: “Voting is the best way to participate in democracy,” “People in a particular community aren't interested in politics,” “People only want political stories about scandals,” etc. You can keep these assumptions to yourself, or elect to share them in the next step. 


Step 4: As a group, discuss the assumptions you've identified and how they influence your political coverage and broader narratives about elections. Questions you can ask:

  • How have your personal assumptions surfaced in your coverage? How do they shape the stories you tell and the sources you highlight?

  • How do the assumptions you identified shape larger narratives, policies and actions (or lack thereof) around elections?

  • Who could you talk with to better inform your own assumptions, or better understand the larger assumptions you identified?

Part 4

Part 4: Identifying narratives to shift & elevate 

The assumptions you identified influence the dominant narratives about how elections work, and how power functions in politics. These narratives can often become entrenched (for example, “All politicians are bought and sold”) and can contribute to malaise, disinformation, and exploitation.


This step is all about understanding both the narratives that reinforce problematic power dynamics, oppression and racism and those that need to be elevated to help the public exercise their own power and agency in elections.


Step 1: Consider this question: Which narratives reinforce or perpetuate inequity or power imbalances?


In groups of two, think about the assumptions you discussed and identify one or two overall narratives about elections that stem from them. For each narrative, write two-three sentences explaining how assumptions can fuel it, and how it can perpetuate exploitation, inequity, and/or imbalances of power in the political process. For example:


Many people in a particular community assume that our state representatives are in the pocket of corporations, and that's just the way things are. This can contribute to voter apathy, and deepen the influence of moneyed interests.


 Try to identify at least two narratives. (10-15 minutes)


Step 2: Next, in the same pairs, think about the narratives, perspectives and voices that you think could be elevated to challenge the problematic narratives you described. What kinds of stories and information would help inform the assumptions you discussed and shift the narratives toward more equitable and representative elections?


Write down a few specific examples that you could elevate in your reporting. (10 minutes)


Step 3: Have each pair share the narratives that perpetuate inequity and the narratives they want to elevate with the full group. Are there common threads between any of the examples you surfaced? 

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