Grace Panetta: On covering the US Elections in times of Covid-19 and Trump presidency
In anticipation of the November 3 US presidential elections and the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak in the country, The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) had a chat with New York based journalist Grace Panetta. Grace works as a senior politics reporter for Business Insider. She covers elections and voting for the publication. In this interview with CFWIJ, Grace tells us about her experience of working as a reporter covering one of the most monumental events this year, how Covid-19 impacted the process and decisions relating to the elections in the country and the way she handles reporting in the era of misinformation and disinformation. Scroll through to read the interview.
CFWIJ: How long have you been reporting for the Business Insider?
Grace: I started at the Business Insider almost two years ago as in intern/fellow during college. I have been reporting full-time for almost a year now. Shortly after I began working as a full-time reporter in December 2019, the pandemic hit. So most of my professional experience as a journalist has been during this pandemic, which has been interesting and there is nothing like it. This is also my first presidential election working as a journalist.
Tell us about your experience of covering the US elections?
In the beginning of the year in January and February, I knew it would be really hectic and busy, and it turned out that way. It was exciting but funny too during the Iowa caucuses. I wondered what a huge mistake, this will never happen again and the rest of the elections will never be that chaotic or have that many problems. But this was the story I ended up covering this whole year and things took such an interesting turn.
Elections in the United States of America are around the corner. How are you managing the information flow and developing news as a beat reporter?
It is, obviously, impossible to keep up with everything all at once because while covering election administration, there are different things happening in all the fifty states at all times with regards to the voting process. But I do try to follow everything and keep up with it as best as I can. It is really just figuring out what are some of the biggest issues and biggest problem spots. There is just so much litigation over election rules, so it is difficult sometimes to keep up with it all. It has been a challenge covering something so decentralized. But it has also been an exciting and interesting opportunity at the same time. Mainly, I get a lot of press releases about the litigation that happens and follow a lot of lawyers on Twitter. I try to keep tab on as many different things as possible and it is definitely a challenge for everyone.
Covid-19 has affected elections in the US this year. What has it been like for you in terms of reporting the election and voting activities during these unprecedented times?
With regards to the election and the voting process, it escalated really quickly during early March. Life was normal and we had Super Tuesday on March 3. Those elections mainly took place without any major problems. But then a week later, the majority of the country began shutting down, workplaces and schools went remote, and businesses were shut down. Then the first elections that were set to take place on March 10 definitely came up against that.
The first big one thrown into chaos by the pandemic was the Ohio presidential primary on March 17. There was a lot of last minute activity, with the Governor Mike DeWine trying to postpone it and make it all mail. The Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and the public health commissioner got involved. Last minute court rulings were taking place, just a day before the voting was supposed to happen. They were actually able to shut down all the in-person voting that were supposed to take place and ended up holding almost entirely by mail, but some in-person voting.
This was the first time one wondered that this is going to be a problem through our elections. At that point, I hoped that the pandemic would be over by November, but that did not happen. It was at that moment in mid-March when I thought that this is going to be a big problem because all these presidential primaries were supposed to be happening in the next few months.
Look at it from the perspective of the voters. In March, there was so much we did not know about the virus. Now hindsight, even if things had gone differently and we had managed to get way more under control than we did, it will still affect the voting process because we don’t have a vaccine yet.it is not to the point where there is no widespread community transmission; in fact, now we are moving in the opposite direction with a possible third wave this fall. Officials really have stepped up but the pandemic, if ended up in another world with different measures that were taken at the federal level, the virus did not have to be this bad again in the fall.
According to news, it might take several days or weeks for election results to emerge because of Covid-19 and postal voting. Given that you have to be on top of all the news and updates concerning your beat, how are you strategizing your reporting?
The biggest race people are going to be worried about is the presidential race. In the US, we do not have the nationwide popular vote election, we the Electoral College system where every state gets a certain number of votes. So whichever candidate wins the most votes, wins all of the Electoral College votes. This year, we have all these states scaling up mail voting, which take longer to process than in-person votes, especially in the states that allow mail ballots to arrive after election day. There are more and more states saying that as long as the ballots are postmarked by election day, they will be counted, even if they are received afterwards. Every state does this differently and what it really means for us is that there are states like Arizona and Florida that have a lot of experience processing high levels of mail ballots. Florida, for example, we’re expecting to have a lot of results on election night; Ohio has also made a lot of changes to allow officials to process ballots early.
Overall, I do expect that we would not know the winner of the presidential race on election night. Decision desks, like the ones that we work with at decision desk HQ, are going to air on the side of caution and not call a race for the wrong candidate. But it also depends on the margin. It is mostly just about assuring the public that mail ballots take longer to process, it is okay to wait for results and it does not mean that anything is wrong. It just means that officials are working to get the count fairly and accurately.
During times when information is coming in every minute from various sources — particularly social media, how do you tackle misinformation and disinformation as a journalist?
There is so much misinformation out there — even some that is maliciously spread, a lot of which happens to be perpetuated and spread by the US president. The US election system is already decentralized and very complicated, given its rules and policies — not just from state to state but even by county within states, which is why there is so much confusion over the vote. It makes sense because our system is complicated and not always user-friendly or easy to understand. In this climate, where people are so paranoid and scared of what is happening, they can be more prone to buying into misinformation.
The most important message I have been trying to get out through my reporting and in my use of social media is telling people that mistakes do happen in election administration and are prone to happen in any system that is run by humans. Majority of the time it is not any malfeasance or fraud — it is extremely rare. Any mistakes that come up are results of sheer human error or sometimes incompetence in the worst scale of things. Things are always more complicated when a viral tweet, meant to inflame and provoke a reaction, gets across. It is important to understand some of the nuances and complexities in our system.
How have you dealt with sources in terms of your beat reporting, especially while covering the elections?
One of the really great things about covering a beat as decentralized as the election administration and so misunderstood, is that there are so many hardworking, dedicated officials and outside experts who are more than willing to share their expertise. They talk about issues that they are facing and try to deconstruct some of the problems that have come up this year, along with the nuances and quirks to the system.
I have had a very good experience with sourcing this year while covering elections administration. Obviously, it is a crazy time but it is such an important issue that I am very lucky to have so many people who are willing to talk.
How different are the elections this time around for you as a US citizen?
They could not have been more different, but it is incredible to see how things have changed in just four or five years. In 2016, we had just come out of the Obama presidency’s eight years and because Hillary Clinton was a democratic nominee, the election in many ways was a kind of referendum on her and a referendum on a third term of the Obama style agendas. It was really all about Hillary. And that is why a lot of people voted for Donald Trump. Hillary was unpopular and had a lot of controversies, which now seem very tame in comparison.
During that time, the economic circumstances were very different. The economy was doing relatively well in comparison. The nation was in a much better place, so there was more time and energy to focus on Clinton’s and Trump’s various personal scandals. This year, the entire focus is on Trump and his presidency, especially the way he has handled the pandemic; whereas Joe Biden is the one that is far more popular.
This Interview originally appeared in the Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism