Covering the 2020 Political Conventions

Daniel Hautzinger
Hugo Balta and Sara Just
WTTW News Director Hugo Balta and PBS NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just. Photo of Sara Just: Jörg Meyer

While the COVID-19 pandemic has scrambled the plans for the Republican and Democratic Party conventions, both will still be held in some fashion at the end of August: the Democratic from August 17-20, the Republican from August 24-27. Despite the unusual times, WTTW News and PBS NewsHour will still offer in-depth coverage and analysis of each convention, as well as ongoing stories as election day approaches. Sara Just, the executive producer of the NewsHour, and Hugo Balta, the News Director for WTTW News, spoke about the conventions, the lessons they learned from covering the election four years ago, and the role of journalism right now.

How do you plan to cover the conventions during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Sara Just: We are constantly evaluating the risks of reporting in the field. As we consider each story on a case-by-case basis, we are considering the reporting that we can do remotely versus the reporting we can accomplish in person. No matter what we do, we are keeping the safety of our team in mind and minimizing the risk and potential exposure to as small a group as possible.

Hugo Balta: Given the continued uncertainty about the conventions themselves, we decided that we’re going to cover the conventions from Chicago. We’ll be focusing on covering the conventions from the perspectives of different neighborhoods in Chicago, and then collaborate with PBS NewsHour on their national coverage. When we're covering the conventions, we'll be speaking about the platform of the parties, beginning with the candidate and what they're proposing, and going to the South Side, to the West Side, to the North Side. We will listen to the voice of the voters and find out what they think about what each candidate is proposing.

We will also do what we do best: analysis and in-depth conversations with experts, community leaders, and our local politicians about, ‘What do these proposals mean to residents in Chicago?’ And then unpacking further, ‘What does it mean to the communities that live in the South Side versus the West Side and the North Side? And also, what does this mean to marginalized communities like the Black community, the Hispanic community, and so on?

The last Presidential election led a lot of journalists to re-evaluate their practices. Are there lessons you learned then that you are applying to how you cover this election?

Just: In light of 2016, we are more committed than ever to speaking directly to voters, in as many parts of the country as possible, even as that is more challenging during the pandemic. Additionally, we are focused on evaluating and explaining polling data, which represents important insight but sometimes does not tell the whole story of the electorate. 

Balta: I think one of the biggest criticisms of media four years ago was this notion of parachuting in to different parts of the country and telling the story, but not understanding the communities being covered. So a lesson learned from that was that WTTW News can't tell the story from where we are headquartered on the Northwest Side.

In order to really understand the concerns, the needs, and the wants of the public in Chicagoland, we need to go to where they live. We need to spend time talking to them. We need to insure that our coverage doesn’t pretend that what the Republican Party or Democratic Party are proposing to the public has the same effect on someone who lives on the North Side as on someone who lives on the South Side. In our effort to produce fair and accurate coverage as an independent news organization, we need to do so from a foundation of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The only way we're going to do that is by going to these different neighborhoods and understanding the nuances and people’s perspectives based on not only where they live geographically, but their differences based on income, on education, on race, gender, sexual orientation.

What do you think the role of journalism is in covering this election while there are multiple crises facing the country and potentially eclipsing the election in terms of the public's attention?

Just: Election day is coming, no matter how many other stories vie for our attention between now and then. There are important choices for Americans to make, not only at the top of the ticket but all the way down the ballot in their communities. It is our job this year, like every year, to provide information and reporting about who is running, what they stand for and would do in office, efforts to influence the vote, and so much more.

Balta: In these unprecedented times of crisis, the public is looking to local, state, and national leaders to help them understand and navigate these frightening times. I think because we are in the middle of a pandemic, because we are still having conversations about systemic racism, because of concerns about the economy, people will be making a decision about the next president based on what they're experiencing now. So I think that this election is of heightened interest and importance to the community. I would say COVID-19 has certainly elevated the election year, as if we needed more visibility for an election.