How do local newsrooms cover elections at a time when democratic principles are under attack, basic voting procedures are questioned, and many people fear the future of personal rights?
It’s a challenge that fiercely emerged during 2020’s political and social unrest. Now, with another unusual and significant election cycle underway, a growing number of journalism organizations and newsrooms are responding. From community meetings in Ohio to “democracy reporters” and a focus on diverse voters, journalists are experimenting and finding better ways to cover an election like no other.
This American Press Institute report is meant to help news organizations think about their politics and campaign coverage in different and more effective ways. The report is part of API’s Election Coverage & Community Listening program, which awards grants to several organizations to help fund ideas to create journalism that better serves the needs of the public.
A first step in redesigning election coverage, as Harvard University professor Steven Levitsky has noted, is recognizing that democracy-eroding rhetoric and actions aren’t politics as usual — and shouldn’t be covered that way.
“They are not normal,” says Levitsky in a new guidebook for media. “There are real and consequential differences, to which we must pay close attention.”
He’s not the only expert who contends that the yeeting of democracy must be met with an equally forceful yoink. But many local newsrooms aren’t ready to deliver more powerful coverage. Massive layoffs, hedge fund ownership, dwindling budgets and a lack of training and experience in covering an intensely divided culture — those realities have left media leaders distracted and unprepared.
Media critic Dan Froomkin is among those who are concerned that political journalism will continue with some of its bad habits: “anachronistic, algorithmic combination of false equivalence, distance, and deadened tone,” as Froomkin describes it in his Press Watch blog.
There’s little time for busy media leaders “to think about the big picture of our coverage, to step back and look at all of it and the overall story it conveys to our audiences,” CNN editor Alex Koppelman wrote in a recent analysis.
“But now, right now, we have to make that time,” says Koppelman.
Defining democracy and why we care
Among the many strange spawn of 2020 was the realization that journalists needed to step in and help teach the world’s leading democracy about democracy.
This is when a project called Democracy SOS launched a 10-month fellowship program and distributed emergency funding to newsrooms “to support reporters and editors in significantly strengthening journalism’s role in advancing our democracy through innovative approaches that build civic engagement, equity and healthy discourse.”
Large and small organizations launched “democracy teams” complete with democracy editors, reporters and audience engagement specialists. Democracy Day, an initiative created and supported by about 400 media organizations, was held Sept. 15, 2022.
And a high school government teacher quit her day job and became an Instagram influencer and a voracious consumer of news, which she uses to inform her 1 million followers and her top-rated podcast.
Democracy SOS offers a fellowship program to help newsrooms “build civic engagement, equity and healthy discourse.”
Jaisal Noor, democracy initiative manager for the Solutions Journalism Network and a former producer with Baltimore’s Real News Network, told API: “I think there’s a realization that our democracy is something that is fragile, and it’s something that needs engagement to survive. There’s a hunger for that. Journalists need to step up and provide people with information on how they can engage in the political process.”
So how do you cover and explain democracy as a journalist?
First, your newsroom may need a refresher course. Can you adequately define democracy for all readers? Can you explain what happens in a non-democratic society? If not, no real shame there: Courses in “reporting on the democracy beat” generally weren’t a thing in journalism school.
But your democracy-focused coverage needs to be clarified for your newsroom so that you can define it for your audience.
“Democracy is in peril because people don’t know what it is. And it’s very, very difficult to protect something that is unknown,” says Sharon McMahon, the Instagram influencer whose followers are known as “Governerds.”
The former teacher told API that “a one-semester government class in high school probably means very little to a 45-year-old auto mechanic. That was a long time ago. I’m not using my geometry either, turns out. You don’t use it, you lose it.”
GB News, a public media news organization in Boston, earlier this year posted a job opening for “an intrepid reporter to cover Massachusetts politics and policy at the intersection of voters and democracy.” But democracy isn’t a niche beat, Lee Hill, executive editor of GB, told API. “It’s in our bones. It’s what we do,” he says. “And to be a part of this newsroom is to cover threats to democracy in all of its many forms.”
To Spotlight PA, the word “democracy” is simply about values. “We’re not afraid to have values as a newsroom,” editor-in-chief Christopher Baxter told API. “We’re not partisan. We don’t take sides on policy debates. But we do say that we believe the government should be transparent. We believe if we pay for the government, we should have access to records and understand how it’s spending our money. We believe that the more people who get involved in our democracy and the more people who vote, the better.”
Here’s how The Texas Tribune defined for its readers what democracy-based reporting means during the upcoming elections:
From The Texas Tribune elections guide
A conversation earlier this year that started with a casual tweet became Democracy Day, launched for the first time on Sept. 15. The organizers — Jennifer Brandel of Hearken, Democracy SOS and Election SOS; Stefanie Murray of the Center for Cooperative Media; Bridget Thoreson of INN; and Rachel Glickhouse of News Revenue Hub — persuaded about 400 news and civic organizations to join the effort.
By mid-September, those organizations had set aside competition and created nearly 400 democracy-related stories that can be republished by anyone, free of charge. The response surprised even the organizers, who were “bootstrapping it,” Brandel told API.
“We didn’t have any money to organize it,” she said, “so we thought, what can we do that is a minimum viable product version of what the hope is for the future… Can we inspire folks to at least turn their attention to reporting on, editorializing or having conversations about democracy within their newsrooms?”
The group, which since has received grants from the Democracy Fund and The Knight Foundation, plans to expand Democracy Day in 2023 — including the possibility of making it a recognized holiday. “There’s so many possibilities,” said Brandel, simply by “putting it on people’s calendars and thinking about all the different ways that not only newsrooms but other civic organizations and even companies could honor that day.” (Disclosure: The author of this report was a volunteer with the Democracy Day effort.)
While the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, The Atlantic, and a growing number of local and regional media including KPCC/LAist have created specific democracy coverage, there’s some skepticism.
Perry Bacon Jr. noted in his Washington Post opinion column that a crucial segment of the mediasphere appears tentative about jumping into the democracy coverage pool: local and national television. And that’s because democracy coverage means reporting on the Republican party’s key figures who “are acting to erode democracy and voting rights,” he says.
“Honest coverage of the GOP’s radicalism might alienate viewers and ultimately hurt these outlets’ bottom lines, so it’s disappointing but not surprising that [the outlets] have not changed course,” says Bacon.
And as often happens in a polarized society, words are weaponized, memefied and become their own source of divisiveness. It’s gradually happening to the word “democracy” — a word that President Biden repeated 34 times in his partisan-tinged speech in Philadelphia in September.
“I guarantee you really every time I bring it up, I get a million messages,” says civics podcaster Sharon McMahon, informing her that “‘we don’t have a democracy. We have a republic.’”
She uses history lessons to help explain the term, pointing out that the United States was created as a democratic republic. (Here’s a plain-language explainer from the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.)
McMahon also suggests a solution: Use the word “civic” to help describe the new beat, and repeatedly refer to “the democratic principles of our republic.”
But she encourages journalists to continue the focus on democracy. “I would really like to see local news organizations use this to their advantage, repeating the same important concepts of the principles of democracy over and over, as they then begin to take root in the hearts of Americans.”
Download the report here.
Next: How to be different — and better — this election