Life as a journalist: behind the scenes on election day

Such is the political climate at present, precious little comes as a surprise.

But after more than six years of covering politics in the traditional Tory heartlands of Sussex, yesterday’s local elections results really did go beyond the predictable.

One of the councils I’ve spent many an evening at, Arun, has been under Conservative rule since its inception. Now, the Lib Dems are the largest party and no one group can claim overall control. It went to the wire, too, like Eurovision when they changed the results process to make it exciting until the very end.

News of such shocks spreads quickly across social media but the local press still plays a key role in keeping thousands of voters up to date. This is how it is done:

The count

Where I am, our local election results are announced the following day, mercifully saving counting staff, journalists and candidates alike from an adrenaline-filled all-nighter without a stiff drink on hand.

That doesn’t make the task any easier for all involved, though. It’s always a fast-paced, relentless process, with vote counting (hopefully) done swiftly and results coming in thick and fast.

All being well, we will have journalists at as many counts as resources allow.

This was my favourite job as a trainee reporter. I’d turn up a bit early, mingle with the candidates, get a feeling for how things had gone and pick up a few initial tips and build bridges with the faces likely to be filling the council chamber in the years ahead.

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In journalism, contacts are everything. It’s important to do the groundwork for the task ahead, while equally plenty of planning to understand the key details is crucial. Which seats are the opposition targeting? How many are needed for a majority? Who is defending which seat?

If you don’t know the council well enough, the councillors who are hoping to hold their seats and the background behind the names and the parties, you’re toast before the first results start streaming in.

It’s one thing to tell people who has won – but anyone can find this out in this day and age. Few can provide the back story.

Teamwork

Elections aren’t won without teamwork. Likewise, they’re not covered without everyone pulling together.

As a content editor, my job is no longer to be our representative on the ground.

But as the combined tsunami of results piled in from across numerous Sussex councils yesterday, I took over the ‘admin’ side of things from the office to ease the pressure.

At the count it can become overwhelming. If you’ve got to record the number of votes, speak to, photograph/video the winners and relay this all to the public, it’s not long before you fall behind. You might spend an hour twiddling your thumbs but as soon as that first result is called, it’s a roller coaster, 100mph journey for the rest of the day.

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We didn’t get to vote in our ward this year, but last year was a different story. Even the minion came along!

Our strategy this year was to try to free up reporters at counts as much as possible, updating our online stories with results as they were reported from the office, leaving them to grab the important reactions and visuals to bring our coverage to life.

Social media is a fundamental part of this, so we kept our Facebook pages ticking over with links to our web stories and I used my Twitter to provide a bit of ‘expert’ knowledge and analysis.

Accuracy is paramount

I’ve written about covering politics before – it’s a fine balance and you can often become an easy target for accusations of bias if you don’t tread carefully.

The toughness of the task is often underestimated and underappreciated. People expect instant updates as results are announced but also expect complete accuracy.

With the lightning pace of events unfolding, it can be easy to make a mistake. You’re dealing with humans and a dizzying array of numbers. You have to be careful to ensure things are reported accurately and in my view it’s better to be second and right than first and wrong.

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Don’t mess it up, or else!

For Arun, I’d been keeping a handy tally chart of the ups and downs as Labour and Conservatives battled for the lead. I was pretty sure with a few wards to go that the Tories had lost control – but I redid the tally twice before declaring the result in a breaking news headline. You don’t want to be wrong and plaster it all over the internet!

When the results are announced, we were able to publish short articles outlining the headlines, before the detail was padded out later.

Treading on eggshells

Every man and his dog will have an opinion about the results. You might headline on the fact that Labour has gained a record number of seats, yet the critic will argue that they still only have a tiny fraction of an overall majority.

You might publish a perfectly factual headline, but those who feel like they’ve downed Goliath might complain that you’ve under-egged their five minutes of fame.

I once received a complaint arguing we had not quoted one party’s successful candidates, despite making significant gains. It turned out roughly half the article did exactly the opposite!

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It was a true team effort – but it’s always nice to receive compliments over complaints…

The point is it is sometimes very difficult to keep people happy, as inevitably those at the heart of what you are writing about will have their own thoughts about their result’s significance. When you judge things from an independent standpoint, the reality might well be a little less momentous than they think.

An experienced eye can usually detect the main angle, and from a neutral stance it will generally be hard to argue against.

The key thing for the reader to understand is that inevitably decisions are made at pace, and if there is a rare problem or error, it is not due to a bias.

Happily, touch wood, we’ve had plenty of thanks for our coverage so far this year, and no major complaints. Let’s hope it stays that way!

Special pencils

This is one of my favourite features in my time as a reporter. For politics nerds, it’s a great insight from those who make election day tick.

It features aliens, energy sapping shifts and the inside story behind why the little pencils you use to make your ‘X’ in the box are so unique.

Check it out here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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