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In 2024, American newsrooms have a responsibility to:

COVER ELECTIONS LIKE THEY MATTER MORE THAN SPORTS SCORES

  • Prioritize substantive coverage of the issues that matter to voter’s lives.

  • Make headlines accurate and informative, not clickbait.

  • Stop making predictions and pushing polls at the expense of issues coverage.

  • Celebrate and uplift election workers, voters, and the election process.

  • Don’t set aside moral judgment when covering obvious lies and bigotry.

  • Hold politicians to account for party leader’s positions, statements, and behavior.

 
Prioritize substantive coverage of the issues that matter to voter's lives. Democracy is not a sport to be treated like entertainment. Decisions made by elected officials can mean life or death. Newsrooms focus their election coverage much too heavily on the odds of victory (the “horse race”), when they should be giving the public crucial context on the stakes. Americans need to know about policies and their impacts, not insider politics. Tell us if a candidate holds extreme views on abortion, what their solutions are for gun deaths, whether their environmental policies will mitigate or exacerbate the climate emergency, while providing context from experts on what solutions are most worth pursuing. Marvin Kalb put it perfectly for the Brookings Institution in 2021: “reporters should…start explaining the substantial problems currently bedeviling America and then presenting possible solutions, as suggested by Democrats and Republicans, ultimately leaving it to the American voter to decide what’s best...”
 
Make headlines accurate and informative, not clickbait. Your newsrooms choose specific words and phrases for headlines because they are known to increase engagement. Some outlets employ A/B testing to optimize headlines with the same goal in mind. This deeply cynical, profit seeking approach to informing the public is antithetical to the premise of journalism. The frames chosen for headlines affect how a reader processes the information in an article. Make sure your headlines do not contain euphemism or emotive terms at the expense of truth and reality. Be clear about the anti-democratic behavior we are witnessing.
Stop making predictions and pushing polls at the expense of issues coverage. We are awash in speculation about campaign strategies and election outcomes. Yet most of the time the media speculates, it gets things very wrong. Predictions crowd out the substantive information voters need to make decisions in their self-interest. Warped coverage of polls and primary results gives the impression that those things are more important than the potential loss of democracy. This type of substance-free coverage obscures the reality that the Republican party is setting swing states up to have free and fair votes overturned. That’s the story!
 
Celebrate and uplift election workers, voters, and the election process. Center and humanize those behind the scenes - election officials and workers who make sure elections are conducted with accuracy. They are facing threats of violence, many quitting, following strategic MAGA Republican attacks. Spotlight and celebrate election workers so they don’t remain abstracted and easier to demonize. Drop paywalls for election coverage. Write a how-to guide for voting and pin the digital version to the top of your homepage. Explain how to get involved in local politics and elections. Democratize your newsroom by establishing a citizen’s agenda - ask voters about the coverage they need as they head to the polls. Make your newsroom a one stop shop for voters in your community.
Don’t set aside your moral judgment when covering obvious lies and bigotry. It’s immoral to normalize liars and racists when you know they are those things. A candidate’s pursuit of a political office does not give them automatic legitimacy or excuse them from adhering to basic norms of society and democratic politics. Be like the Wisconsin Examiner and call out a renowned liar and bigot (and his party-wide supporters) when he employs Nazi rhetoric.
 
Hold candidates to account for party leader’s positions, statements, and behavior. It is important to get politicians on the record about the actions and standing of their party leader at all times, but especially in an election year. When a journalist asks a prominent Democrat if it is “responsible” for Joe Biden to be at the top of the ticket given talk about his age, they should also ask Republicans if it is responsible for Trump to be at the top of the ticket given his being found liable for rape, his history of financial fraud, and his mishandling of our nation’s Covid pandemic response.
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MAKE THREATS TO DEMOCRACY CLEAR

Inform voters of the freedoms they will lose if the MAGA movement wins. Voters need to know who stands to gain and who will suffer if an openly fascistic candidate, with the support of nearly all electeds in his party, prevails. We can expect the loss of rights, more corruption, more pollution, degradation of government services, loss of Medicare and Social Security, imposition of a state-sponsored religion, criminalizing of peaceful protest, further restrictions on voting - in essence a locking in of authoritarian, anti-democratic power with virtually no accountability. Kudos to The Atlantic for sounding an appropriate level of alarm by devoting their January issue to the consequences of a Trump victory; we need more of this type of reporting. Threats to our democracy and well-being demand constant attention from all media until they are common knowledge.
Abandon false equivalence between traditional and fascistic candidates. For example, treating traditional Joe Biden and fascistic Donald Trump as having comparable but different visions for America is a distortion. Falsely making Biden’s gaffes out to be as monumental as Trump’s coup attempt, election lies, sexual assault, or fascist plans normalizes the obscene and boosts an unqualified candidate. As Robert Reich wrote ahead of the 2022 midterms: "It is dangerous to believe that ‘balanced journalism’ gives equal weight to liars and to truth-tellers, to those intent on destroying democracy and those seeking to protect it…"
 
Expose candidates who foment political violence. Normalizing politicians who tell xenophobic and racist lies about pivotal issues increases the likelihood of political violence. One purpose of telling election lies is to foment unrest ahead of November that could have a chilling effect on turnout. Intimidation is likely to play a role as voters head to the polls and beleaguered election workers try to do their jobs. Clearly name and condemn all forms of violence and intimidation directed at public officials and groups historically suppressed from exercising full voting rights.
 
Call out lies and bad behavior in every piece of reporting. Any reporting that ignores a candidate’s history of criminality or their attempts to destroy American democracy is disrespectful to the public. 70% of Republican voters do not believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election because the MAGA wing of the Republican party lies to America. You make these lies seem legitimate by focusing on polling, instead of exploring why so many people are misinformed. You render the reprehensible acceptable whenever you report on Trump’s primary performances as though he’s just another candidate, without including the breadth of his disqualifying behavior - that a judge determined he raped someone, that he’s been found liable for massive fraud, and his COVID pandemic failures that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives.
 
Prominently cover the Big Lie-fueled attack on election legitimacy and voting rights. Comprehensively describe and condemn threats to free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power. MAGA Republicans are strategically lying so they can make it harder to vote and ignore the will of the people if they lose. Their election fraud lies create public distrust, manufacturing public outcry that is then used as pretense to pass baseless voter suppression laws. Don’t indulge this anti-American attack. You have a moral imperative to speak accurately about strategies to derail our electoral infrastructure. Do not run from this responsibility, as CNN did under Chris Licht.
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Avoid euphemisms that conceal and normalize extremism. The words you use can either center truth or obfuscate it. Describing a well-funded, strategic disinformation campaign as mere “conspiracy theories'' is dishonest to readers. It is just as dishonest to downplay Big Lie generated voter suppression laws by headlining them as “curbs'' and “hurdles.” The goal should be to expose disinformation agents who are out to deceive the public and harm our democracy, not perform public relations for their nefarious efforts. Americans require accurate language, not timidity, to understand the threat we face.
 
Explain that disinformation by MAGA is a strategy. You know lying about elections is a repugnant strategy employed by an extreme wing of the Republican party, whose members went along with, or actively participated in, a coup, yet newsrooms are rarely forthcoming about this reality when reporting. It’s not biased to tell the truth about this matter or other obvious MAGA disinformation campaigns like the lie that the US faces a terrorist invasion at the border. Fully exposing near party-wide disinformation strategies is the most basic requirement of a political journalist.
Don’t platform liars or act as stenographers for strategic MAGA lies. Only one party has several members lying about elections, January 6th, the border, and their support for major legislation. They rely on you to dutifully amplify whatever they say (a failure of journalism referred to as stenography) and in so doing, you become complicit. Choose responsible frames based on knowledgeable sources, not the frames and PR opportunities created for you by MAGA Republicans. Make it a policy to not invite known spreaders of disinformation to your newsroom or ask them for quotes.
 
Include a public figure’s history of coup participation when quoting them. Mark Jacob points out that lack of vital context, or as he calls it “media amnesia,” becomes amnesty for elected officials whose credibility should rightly be questioned. “I’m not saying the news media should bring up these ugly details just to whack misbehaving political figures. I’m saying they should bring them up when they’re relevant information for weighing the person’s credibility.”
 
Inoculate Americans against a repeat of the Big Lie strategy. Undoubtedly, the 2024 election will be immediately followed by claims of fraud by MAGA candidates who lose. Get in front of this. Convey to readers that lies, threats, and violence are illegitimate, anti-democratic political tactics designed to unfairly preserve or gain power outside of electoral processes. Show how the transfer of power works so people understand the norms, the culture, and the law of running elections. Write “here’s what to expect” articles ahead of election day, like this excellent example from The Keystone, “Will Pennsylvania see another “red mirage” in the 2024 election?
 
Build public trust by explaining the newsroom decisions you make about elections. There is widespread distrust of how the media covers elections. Help the public better understand the decisions you make. As Margaret Sullivan said in an interview with the Guardian, “I call it radical transparency: journalists should explain how they came to conclusions and their reporting techniques, and share primary information. In other words: ‘Here are receipts, you can see them yourselves.’ We can’t change the craziness of the environment, but we can relentlessly explain ourselves.” Tell readers how you go about calling a race on election night. Publish your pro-democracy election coverage mission, as WyoFile did in 2022.
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3. PROTECT AMERICANS FROM DISINFORMATION

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