Why We Urgently Need Pro-Democracy Election Coverage in 2022
Media has a responsibility to:
MAKE THREATS TO DEMOCRACY CLEAR
Cover the Big Lie-fueled attack on election legitimacy and voting rights
Inform voters of the freedoms they can expect to lose under MAGA Republican extremist governance
Abandon false equivalence between normal candidates and anti-democracy Republicans, as that normalizes election lies
Forcefully denounce candidates who call for or condone violence
Election liars are on the ballot. Identify them and use the word lie. Voters deserve plain-speaking about candidates who lie. Euphemisms like “election denier” convey validity to an outright strategic disinformation campaign. 70% of Republican voters do not believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Timidity from news media is creating a nationwide permission structure to ‘deny’ elections. At the very least, stop saying things like candidates “support Trump’s false claims” about the election. The candidate is making false claims all on their own.
Cover the Big Lie-fueled attack on election legitimacy and voting rights. MAGA Republicans are strategically lying so they can make it harder to vote and ignore the will of the people when they lose. They lie about election fraud to create public distrust. Then they use the public outcry as a pretense to pass unnecessary laws that are nothing more than voter suppression measures - deleting people from voter rolls and shortening polling place hours, as well as a host of other strategies to derail our electoral infrastructure. The extremist tactic of making it legal to throw out votes in the midterms demands repeated, urgent investigation and condemnation. Clearly establish and condemn threats to free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power. When the president gives a speech warning of threats to democracy, air it.
Inform voters of the freedoms they can expect to lose under MAGA Republican extremist governance. Inform the public of who stands to gain and who will suffer if MAGA Republican extremism were to prevail. We can expect the censoring of journalists, more corruption, more pollution, degradation of government services, potential loss of public education, 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 zero accountability. We know some of what Republicans will do if they win the midterms, with Kevin McCarthy announcing he would gum up the government with politically motivated sham investigations and other Republican elected officials calling for further restrictions on the civil rights of women, LGBTQ+ and POC.
Abandon false equivalence between normal candidates and anti-democracy Republicans, as that normalizes election lies. After January 6th, news media failed to keep election liars off the air, opting instead to treat them as normal politicians and conduct interviews with them. Many Republicans used these platforms to plant more unfounded election doubts in the public sphere. Your role is to immunize the public against these election lies. Don’t platform liars in service to an outdated notion that both parties are fully pro-democracy. As Robert Reich recently wrote, "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, to the enablers of an ongoing attempted coup and those who are trying to prevent it." Candidates who lie about elections truly don’t belong in an election. Cloaking them in the legitimacy of your outlet normalizes canndidates who spread lies and shrouds the threat they pose to democracy. Show how candidates’ “actions are connected to the election-fraud lie and the insurrection.” Trying to remain neutral during these times puts your newsroom on the side of the fascist Big Lie and abdicates the journalist’s responsibility to separate truth from lies.
Forcefully denounce candidates who call for or condone violence. Intimidation and violence are likely to play a role as voters head to the polls and beleaguered election workers try to do their jobs. Part of the purpose of lying about elections is to suppress the vote by inspiring followers to show up to polls and intimidate voters. Political violence ahead of election day could have a further chilling effect on turnout. Clearly name and condemn all forms of violence and intimidation directed at public officials and groups historically suppressed from exercising full voting rights. Be wary of spreading violent rhetoric even when simply reporting on it. Avoid direct quotation of violent remarks as much as possible. Explain stochastic terrorism to readers.
PROTECT AMERICANS FROM DISINFORMATION
Use direct language instead of euphemism that softens election lies and voter suppression
Regularly remind voters of all candidates’ positions on the legitimate election victory of Joe Biden
Inoculate Americans against a repeat of the Big Lie strategy of rejecting results after Election Day Connect the Big Lie to the strategic MAGA Republican effort to undermine democracy
Build public trust by explaining the newsroom decisions you make about elections
Use direct language instead of euphemism that softens election lies and voter suppression. The words you use matter and can either center truth or obfuscate it. The American public requires accurate language, not timidity, to understand the threat it faces. So far the industry’s favored choices have been dangerously neutral with phrases like “dispute the results,” “revisit 2020 election,” and “reverse election results,” used in place of much more accurate language for describing what happens when a coup is attempted like “lie about the election,” “overthrow the government,” or “end democracy.” “Repeating conspiracy theories about the 2020 election” does not adequately warn of the danger or the strategy behind it. Headlines affect how a reader processes the information in an article. Make sure your headlines are clear about the anti-democratic behavior we are witnessing. Don’t downplay Big Lie generated voter suppression laws by headlining them as “election curbs” and “voting hurdles.” Describing a well-funded, strategic disinformation campaign as “conspiracy theories” is dishonest to readers. The goal should be to expose disinformation agents, not soften their image.
Stop being stenographers for strategic MAGA Republican election lies. Do not provide platforms for strategic, weaponized disinformation designed to undermine public confidence in elections. Republicans place lies and bad faith arguments into the public sphere via your news coverage. They rely on you to dutifully amplify whatever they say, a failure of journalism referred to as stenography. Right wing propagandists have spent decades “raising questions” about voting fraud even though no appreciable fraud exists. Red states pass restrictive voting laws based on the bad faith questions they raise in your reporting. And in this way, real voting restrictions are passed in response to your spreading of disinformation. A recent NBC article explains how ranked choice voting works and even provides quotes of Republican support, yet the headline blasts, “After Sarah Palin's election loss, Sen. Tom Cotton calls ranked-choice voting 'a scam.’ The journalist’s role is to investigate such claims, and if they are bunk tell us so, before blasting the lie across the front page. Choose responsible frames based on knowledgeable sources, not the frames provided to you by Republicans.
Regularly remind voters of all candidates’ positions on the legitimate election victory of Joe Biden. That’s it. It’s important and bears regular repetition in a country where 70% of Republican voters still believe election lies.
Inoculate Americans against a repeat of the “Big Lie” strategy of rejecting results after Election Day. Undoubtedly the 2022 midterms will be immediately followed by claims of fraud by MAGA Republican candidates who lose. Get in front of this. Write “here’s what to expect” articles ahead of election day:
“Why you should expect to see false claims of voter fraud in the midterm elections.”
“Expect that even if a candidate wins in a landslide, some losers will demand a recount. Surprise: Taxpayers may pay for it.”
Your journalistic duty to democracy and the truth means helping to keep anti-democratic candidates away from power by providing clear warnings to the public. Deny a platform to anyone making unfounded claims. Show how the transfer of power works and what happens behind the scenes, so people understand what’s the norm, what’s the culture, what’s the law.
Connect the “Big Lie” to the strategic Republican effort to undermine democracy. Convey to readers that election lies, threats, and violence are illegitimate and anti-democratic political tactics designed to unfairly preserve or gain power for MAGA Republicans outside of electoral processes. If candidates contest certain methods of voting, such as mail-in ballots, highlight uses of it by both parties in the course of normal electioneering.
Build public trust by explaining the newsroom decisions you make about elections. There is widespread distrust of how the media covers elections. And we can expect disinformation agents to attempt to sow chaos in the days preceding and following the midterms. The MAGA Republican effort to undermine the public’s faith extends to how election night victories are declared by outlets. Help the public better understand the newsroom decisions you make. How do you go about calling a race on election night? How will you handle candidates who lie? Are you ignoring the rallies of election liars? Publish your pro-democracy election coverage mission.
COVER ELECTIONS LIKE THEY MATTER MORE THAN SPORTS SCORES
Inform voters by providing substantive coverage of the issues
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 your moral judgement when confronting obvious lies and bigotry
Inform voters by providing substantive coverage of the issues. Democracy is not a sport and should not be covered the way a baseball season is on the sports page. The decisions made by elected officials can mean life or death, freedom or fascism. Tell us if a candidate holds extreme views on abortion, their solutions for gun deaths, whether their environmental policies will mitigate or exacerbate the climate emergency. Cover essential information for voters like candidates’ histories of public service, their motivations for running, and any past corruption. Explain their positions while providing full context of the issues at hand. Pin candidates down to what they will actually do. Report the impact of a candidate’s proposals on the public’s lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness.
Stop making predictions and pushing polls at the expense of issues coverage. We are awash in speculation about candidates, campaign strategies, and election outcomes. Yet most of the time media speculates, it gets things very wrong. Predictions crowd out the substantive information voters need to make decisions in their self-interest. Why devote valuable newsroom resources to making it all into a game when we know that only generates cynicism, which suppresses the vote? Outsized coverage of predictions and polls gives the impression that those things are more important than the potential loss of democracy. Poll coverage obscures the reality that the MAGA Republican party is setting swing states up to have free and fair votes overturned. That’s the story! Emphasize the differences among the candidates and their positions, not the percentage of people who like one name over another.
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 living with threats of violence, many quitting, following strategic MAGA Republican attacks. Highlight, spotlight, and celebrate them so they don’t remain abstracted and easier to demonize. Feature the efforts of those working to enfranchise voters, like registration drives led by doctors offices and youth organizations. Show people doing the work to support democracy. Drop paywalls for election coverage. Make your newsroom a one stop shop for voters in your community. Write a how-to guide for voting and pin the digital version to the top of your homepage. Publish editorials, opinion columns, and community sourced pieces of personal stories on democracy. 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.
Don’t set aside your moral judgement when confronting obvious lies and bigotry. It’s immoral to normalize liars and coup plotters when you know they are those things. It doesn’t matter if they have been an incumbent senator for decades or are new to politics, a candidate’s self-nomination for the position does not give them automatic legitimacy or excuse them from adhering to basic norms of society and democratic politics. A politician is stumping for a racist? Clearly say so. Instead of the headline “Youngkin to boost Maine’s LePage despite racially incendiary rhetoric” it’s more accurate to simply say “Youngkin to boost racist” because that’s what the first headline was saying euphemistically. By choosing the words “racially incendiary rhetoric,” the Washington Post newsroom was trying to avoid saying racist. Is that journalism?