Media isn't doing nearly enough to defend democracy — but it's not too late to change

We face a choice between democracy and fascism. Time for media to treat elections as more important than sports

Published October 23, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Television microphones stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Television microphones stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

For the last two years, much of the Republican Party has been claiming that any elections they lose must in some way be illegitimate. Some Republicans have even encouraged threats of violence toward beleaguered election workers. Now election liars are on the ballot across the country. Lying, fomenting violence and refusing to accept the will of the people should be political non-starters for candidates in a democracy. Yet rather than depict them as dangerously unfit, too many newsrooms have been protecting the electoral viability of these extremists. Journalists who know the 2020 presidential election was free and fair still frequently describe those who lie about it as mere "skeptics" who "dispute the results."

The 2022 midterms are a referendum on how well America's newsrooms have conveyed the authoritarian threat to the voting public. Studies show that the issues most important to voters closely match which issues the media's been covering. The words and frames journalists choose to describe parties, candidates, policies and their consequences have everything to do with what the public believes as they head to the polls. We call on the news media to urgently communicate that this is not an ordinary election, but rather a contest between would-be authoritarians and candidates who defend the rule of law and the electoral system. To aid in this effort, we propose a set of guidelines for pro-truth, pro-democracy election coverage. For the next two weeks, journalists must 1) make threats to democracy clear, 2) protect Americans against disinformation and 3) treat elections as if they are more important than the sports page (we flesh out our vision here).

Voters deserve the blunt truth about candidates who lie. Newsrooms must overcome their reluctance to use strong language in the face of an increasingly violent, authoritarian, seditionist movement. Neutral euphemisms like "election denier" convey validity to a strategic disinformation campaign. Timidity from the news media is creating a nationwide permission structure to "deny" elections (70% of Republican voters say they do not believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election). Saying candidates are simply "repeating conspiracy theories about the 2020 election," as PBS did this August, softens the severity of purposeful, immoral acts. Did Blake Masters, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Arizona, "soften his anti-abortion stance" or simply begin lying to Arizonans in the 11th hour to fool them into voting for his extremist positions? American journalism must cease its toxic normalization of candidates who practice fascist tactics. 

To protect American voters against an onslaught of disinformation, reporters need to stop being stenographers for strategic election lies designed to undermine public confidence in elections. A recent NBC article explained how ranked choice voting works, and even provided quotes from Republicans in support. That article had the potential to be a good example of reporting that uplifts the voting process. But the headline undermined all that by blasting disinformation: "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 debunk myths, not amplify lies. Undoubtedly, the midterms will immediately by followed by claims of fraud by losing candidates. Newsrooms should inoculate Americans against a repeat of this "Big Lie" strategy by writing "here's what to expect" articles ahead of Election Day, e.g., "Why you should expect to see false claims of voter fraud in the midterm elections," or "Expect that even if a candidate wins in a landslide, some losers will demand a recount. Surprise: Taxpayers may pay for it." Reporters can detail for their audiences how the transfer of power works and what happens behind the scenes, so people understand what the norms are, how the culture of politics works and what the law says. 

To protect American voters against an onslaught of disinformation, reporters need to stop being stenographers for strategic election lies designed to undermine public confidence in elections.

Journalists should abandon the mendacious convention of treating politics like sporting events. The decisions made by elected officials can mean the difference between life and death, freedom and fascism. Candidates' positions on the issues need to take center stage. How will their proposals impact our lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness? Voters need essential information like candidates' histories of public service, their motivations for running, who their financial backers are and any past history of corruption. Predictions and polls trivialize what's at stake and crowd out the substantive information voters need to make decisions in their self-interest. Devoting valuable newsroom resources to making it all seem like a game accomplishes nothing — except generating and spreading vote-suppressing cynicism.

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Unfortunately, with so much at stake and so little time left before all votes are tabulated, our national media has mostly failed to take a pro-democracy stance. Just a month ago, President Biden gave a speech in Philadelphia in which he clearly described the threat to democracy posed by "MAGA Republicans." His words were irrefutable:

MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election, and they're working right now as I speak in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election deniers to undermine democracy itself.

Much of our national media failed to convey the urgency of his message. Their dangerous shoulder shrug was reflected in Peter Baker's dismissive, sporty headline for the New York Times, "A Rematch of Biden v. Trump, Two Years Early." Biden's warning about the GOP's fascist creep took a backseat to optics and evaluations that focused more on the ballgame aspects of all this than on the looming catastrophe. ABC, CBS and NBC did not even air the president's address.

The good news is that, as part of the Democracy Day 2022 effort that kicked off in mid-September, some newsrooms have begun adopting pro-democracy reporting practices that promote democratic health. But a full-throated, industry-wide effort is needed. Some additional recommendations for pro-democracy coverage:  

  • Highlight and celebrate election workers, so they don't remain abstracted and thus easier to demonize. 
  • Feature the efforts of those working to enfranchise voters, like registration drives led by doctors' offices and youth organizations. 
  • Drop paywalls for election coverage and make newsrooms a one-stop shop for voters' information needs.
  • Frame election coverage through the lens that all Americans benefit from competitive, fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power between politicians who respect the results and our established electoral system. 

A journalist's duty to democracy and the truth means keeping anti-democratic candidates from power by providing clear warnings to the public. We have written an open letter to the news industry outlining our pro-democracy guidelines, which is available here. Several leading experts in the fields of media policy, authoritarianism and history, as well as many concerned citizens, have signed on. We encourage anyone who wants to support our effort to do so as well. We urge newsrooms to adopt our guidelines quickly. Journalists will be doing our country a service to consider them and to report from a pro-democracy stance. 

By Brian Hansbury

Brian Hansbury is co-founder of the Media and Democracy Project.

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