How The Philadelphia Inquirer is covering the election: A conversation with Senior Politics Editor Dan Hirschhorn

With just weeks to go until Election Day, the outcome of the presidential election may still be unclear, but one thing is for certain: The results of the election could very likely hinge on Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, making it perhaps the most important swing state in the country. 

As the largest news organization in Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Inquirer has devoted considerable resources to reporting on elections up and down the ballot, and its journalists have criss-crossed the state from Erie to Chester to better understand and inform the electorate. 

“We are the best positioned to do coverage of the presidential election in Pennsylvania in a way that is comprehensive, authoritative, accessible, and sophisticated,” Inquirer Senior Politics Editor Dan Hirschhorn told us recently. 

He continued: “I always tell our reporters that I want our coverage to be accessible to people who do not live and breathe politics, but also sophisticated for people who do.”

The Inquirer has convened a virtual voter roundtable, featuring 24 voters from across Pennsylvania for an ongoing series of conversations. The discussions highlight voices that are often missing from political coverage and also help the Inquirer better inform voters and refine its coverage. It also created an interactive voter guide that is driven by reader questions and clearly outlines how voters can cast ballots by mail or in-person

And recent stories have ranged from Philadelphia’s role at the center of a national debate on voting rights, how both presidential campaigns are courting rural voters across Pennsylvania, and how suburban women voters could sway the election. 

We spoke with Hirschhorn to learn more about The Inquirer’s 2020 campaign coverage, gain insights into how its team of journalists is elevating voter voices, and how the newsroom is preparing for unpredictable results on election night. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:  


The Lenfest Institute: How are you thinking of positioning the Inquirer’s election coverage? Obviously Pennsylvania is a key swing state and Philadelphia is a major focal point, so what are you hoping to accomplish with this coverage and this reporting?

Dan Hirschhorn: Where to start? You’re right that Pennsylvania is a pivotal state, and increasingly it seems like it may even be the pivotal state. The Inquirer is taking a statewide lens to covering the presidential election in Pennsylvania. We are the biggest news organization in the state, we are the best positioned to do coverage of the presidential election in Pennsylvania in a way that is comprehensive, authoritative, accessible, and sophisticated. There’s a key difference in how The Inquirer sees our territory in the presidential race compared to the rest of our coverage. In the bulk of the rest of our coverage, we focus on our DMA, in the Philadelphia region, where the bulk of our subscribers are located. For the purposes of the presidential race,  local is not the Philadelphia region, local is Pennsylvania, and local is all of Pennsylvania. We see the entire state as our backyard — everywhere from Philadelphia, to Scranton, to Erie, to Pittsburgh, everywhere in between, all of those stories are stories that we want to own. And I’m proud of the way we’ve been blanketing the entire state with that in mind.

The Lenfest Institute: Are there particular stories or projects that stand out to you as sort of epitomizing this type of coverage or ways that you’re hoping to make sense of this crazy story for readers?

Hirschhorn: Yeah, there are a lot of stories that I’m very proud of. I always tell our reporters that I want our coverage to be accessible to people who do not live and breathe politics, but also sophisticated for people who do. Probably some of the coverage that I’m the most proud of is coverage that simultaneously elevates the voice of the voters of Pennsylvania, while also putting them and their stories in context of the rest of the state and the campaign in the state. 

Julia Terruso has done a number of fantastic stories like this. Just one that comes to mind, she went to a town in Westmoreland County, this is a town called Norvelt. It was founded as a new deal homestead in the Great Depression by FDR and New Deal democrats. It was later named after Eleanor Roosevelt. For all the talk of socialism in this country right now, Norvelt was founded in as much of a socialist model as you might ever find in America. Almost 100 years later, this is a community that greatly fears what it sees as what is creeping socialism in America — rightly or wrongly — that was a story that really put the voices of the voters first, but also put in the context of the state’s history, the state’s political culture and political history, and how all of that fits into contemporary politics of the moment. 

Photo by Arthur Rothstein / Philadelphia Inquirer

One other area that I’m extremely proud of is our coverage of the actual rules of voting and how the election is run. This is an election where more than we could have possibly anticipated — the very rules of how the election is run — is the story. We are privileged to have the best voting reporter in the state — Jonathan Lai — who has covered the complications of expanding and the challenges of scaling up a new mail voting system in a pandemic, at a moment when the Trump campaign and the Republican Party are challenging the very rules of the election on multiple fronts all the way up to Election Day. 

The Lenfest Institute: Are you thinking about additional ways to not just cover the stories but also almost offer resources for voters to tactically navigate democracy?

Hirschhorn: Oh sure, we do that all the time and everyday. The most shining example of that is the comprehensive FAQ that Jonathan did on everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania either by in-person or by mail. This is a story that thousands of people are reading every day, more and more as we get closer to Election Day. This is basically every question you could think of and we’ve been taking any questions from our readers and adding them in, too. We’ve done that in big stories and in small pieces and I was proud to have that FAQ run in print as well — two pages inside that people could pull out and keep with them as they navigate the challenges of voting in a pandemic.

The Lenfest Institute: Could you tell us about your partnership with PolitiFact and how you’re ensuring that all of the information you’re putting out is factually correct?

Hirschhorn: I’m very proud to partner with PolitiFact as PolitiFact’s exclusive partner in Pennsylvania. This is real accountability in journalism, calling out politicians in both parties when they’re not telling the truth, and giving them credit when they are telling the truth. There’s so much information out there these days and so little political cost to not telling the truth and I’m proud we’ve been able to provide at least the accountability and the facts. 

There is an Inquirer reporter — Jessica Calefati — who is a full-time reporter doing PolitiFact — what she is using the PolitiFact process for is fact checking and applying it to statements by politicians and their campaigns in Pennsylvania. We identify a statement that we want to fact check, she does in-depth research, she comes up with what she thinks is a verdict on the PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter, and then we have a chamber with the PolitiFact editors. It’s almost like a jury. She comes in with what she thinks the rating is, but every rating on the Truth-O-Meter has its definition and we debate it. Maybe we thought going in it was pants on fire, but actually false, maybe half true, but really it’s mostly false. We really scrutinize what the right label is and it runs on our website, PolitiFact’s website, and in print.

The Lenfest Institute: One of the most exciting projects The Inquirer is working on is the Voter Roundtable, which is convening voters from across the state. There have been a handful of conversations already with those folks, but we’re curious how these conversations have gone and how they’re influencing your coverage.

Hirschhorn: The Roundtable has been a fantastic project and just a smashing success. It’s all the brainchild of Ray Boyd on the Audience Team. It’s been a privilege to partner with him on that. It’s a group of 24 voters, representative in any group, but drawn from all over the state. We hold virtual convenings with them roughly once every two weeks or so and we have very loosely moderated discussions about whatever we think is the big issue of the day. We pick the topic, but we are almost entirely listening to them talk about it. We’ve talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and how the occasional looting that has followed overwhelmingly peaceful protests has impacted the campaign. When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away we already had a convening planned for a couple days after that, it was planned on a different topic, but we decided to change our topic at the last minute to talk about that, and it was incredible to be able to hear their voices unfiltered. So many different types of people, and it’s influenced our coverage in many ways. 

Inquirer Voter Roundtable participants

In addition to doing coverage of the convenings, we’re talking to members of our Roundtable separately for individual stories. They’re connecting us with other members of their communities. We also have hundreds of people who applied to be in the Roundtable who we were not able to have on the Roundtable because we only had space for so many people and we have continued to reach out to them to hear their voices. 

In a pandemic where traveling around the state is harder than it would have been otherwise, it’s been amazing to have these voters at our fingertips and at our disposal. And it’s also been heartening in such a polarized era to see how many people of so many different political, racial, ethnic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds share a desire to engage in civil, substantive conversations about policy and politics with people who aren’t like them. It’s been a great project. It’s one of the greatest things we’ve done all year. It’s something I’m really proud of and so grateful for Ray for championing.

The Lenfest Institute: There’s been a lot of talk this year about how we won’t know the winner of the election on election night. How are you thinking of gaming out what that process looks like and preparing readers that this might be a protracted process?

Hirschhorn: We’ve done a lot to prepare our readers for the fact that we may not know who won the election on election night. We’ve done that in our coverage in the course of many stories, both within stories about wider topics and within stories about this specifically. All the votes have never been counted on election night, but knowing the winner on election night is something that Americans have gotten used to. It may be different this year. This is an area where I’m proud of us and proud of Jonathan’s coverage for being so far ahead of the curve. We were doing stories about how it might take days to know the winner even before the pandemic and well before it was a topic that the national press was on. Polling indicates that the news media’s coverage of this issue at large has actually had an impact. You can see that in surveys, more and more people say that they don’t expect to know the winner on election night. 

Photo by Philadelphia Inquirer Politics Team

It’s encouraging that that kind of voter education is actually working. What’s important to me is that every step of the way that we speak in plain facts about what is and is not happening. Huge numbers of people are voting by mail. All the data indicates that the mail ballots will be disproportionately casted in favor of Joe Biden and the in-person votes will be casted disproportionately in favor of President Trump. Votes that are cast in-person are counted more quickly than votes that are cast by mail. That means on election night, it could very well look like Trump is winning, but what’s actually happening is that his voters and votes are just being counted first. Over the course of days that follow, more and more votes could go into Biden’s column and that margin could flip all the way. That is not fraud. That is not the election being stolen or rigged. That is the system working how it’s meant to, that is votes being counted. That is something that I’m proud we have said plainly and stated as fact without any attribution. It’s just a fact, and I hope that’s something that we have prepared our readers for as well, if and when that does happen that it’s not a surprise.

Photo by No-Mad / Shutterstock

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