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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Training provides resources and guidance before midterm elections

Photo: Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States (vote for better tape) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Personal security, misinformation, ethical questions and data protection are all key issues facing journalists during election season. With the U.S. midterm elections a month away, the Society for Professional Journalists and Google News Initiative co-sponsored a free training on Oct. 4 in Madison on covering and protecting elections.

Led by Andy Boyle, Dan Petty and Kathleen Bartzen Culver, all experts in their respective fields, the training covered data journalism, safety and security, verification and fact checking, and ethics and elections. Below are some of the best resources and tips from the training.

Data Journalism

Andy Boyle, director of platform architecture at Axios, covered a number of different tools and resources that journalists can use to find, clean and use data.

According to Boyle, Google Trends is among the best places to find data. Trends can show you what terms and topics have been most searched for at a given time. You can break the data down by country, state and even county. Trends also has a page dedicated to the midterm elections where you can find a variety of information related to the upcoming election.

To create visual graphics with data, Boyle recommended using Tilegram, Flourish and Google Sheets. For data directly related to elections, Boyle suggested visiting Electionland or ProPublica’s Election DataBot.

Safety and Security

Dan Petty, director of audience development for Digital First Media, had one major takeaway in his section on safety and security: use two-factor authentication.

Two-factor authentication is a method used to confirm a user’s identity by asking for a second form of verification. After submitting a password, you are asked to submit some other information, such as a code sent to you via text, to confirm your identity.

Petty also provided tips for creating strong passwords. He suggested moving away from using a password and instead using a passphrase. A passphrase is generally longer than a password and consists of a series of words. For added security, Petty suggested changing your passphrase every four months, making it a minimum of 16 characters and using nonsensical phrases.

You can find more information on protecting your information at

Verification and Fact Checking

When news breaks or a big story is taking place, false images and information pop up all over the Internet and social media, posing challenges for journalists covering a story.

One method to avoid misinformation is to use a reverse image search. This tool allows you to see whether an image circulating on the Internet has been used before and can help you track down the original image.

To find reliable information, Boyle suggested using Google Scholar, which provides scholarly literature and case law. And to find a diverse range of sources, Boyle recommended using Advanced Search on Google, which allows you to search by file type or website type.

Ethics and Elections

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which co-sponsored the event, offered a number of tips for journalists on how to remain ethical while covering elections.

Culver reiterated that journalism’s role is to serve voters and democracy, while noting that election season can present journalists with a number of minefields. To avoid those minefields, Culver suggested:

  • not overplaying the polls
  • avoiding poorly constituted voter focus groups
  • using confidential sources only if absolutely necessary
  • staying away from last-minute revelations
  • establishing a clear line between news and opinion

Culver also recommended heeding your “inner alarm bell” when reporting on a story, asking yourself:

  • What public interest is being served by this reporting?
  • Am I missing an important point of view?
  • Will I be able to clearly and honestly explain – without rationalizing – my decision to anyone who challenges it?

Answering these questions can improve the quality of your reporting. When in doubt on an ethical question, the Society for Professional Journalists’ Ethics Hotline also offers journalists coaching from ethics committee members schooled in the Society’s Code of Ethics.

For more information on all topics from the training, and to find courses, tools and resources visit