Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

“Now that the election is over, democracy is no longer on the ballot — but it is still at stake.”

The United States is a fractured democracy. In 2021, some journalism will exacerbate political schisms in destructive ways, while other journalism will play critical roles in helping to re-knit the civic fabric.

Why? Journalists face key challenges related to trust and legitimacy in 2021. My prediction is that we will see sizable (and democratically consequential) variance in how news outlets deal with the competing pressures they face when interpreting the behaviors of our country’s elected officials, organized interests, and citizens.

Journalists face twin pressures: the continuously evolving natures of both how news organizations determine what is legitimate/verifiably true and how they build and keep trust with their audience. Notably, many journalists and news outlets chose to cover the election and its aftermath through the democracy-worthy lens proposed by the Election Coverage and Democracy Network — highlighting the processes and normalcy of electoral democracy, even as the results were baselessly disputed by the president and many of his supporters both in and out of government.

Some news outlets will continue this style of reporting: helping citizens understand some of the more basic machinations of government, when explicit and baseless norm and rule violations occur, and what the verifiable truth is — even when it may require unbalanced, asymmetric reporting.

By doing this, journalists help civic-minded citizens — especially those who are willing to admit what they do not know. These are the people, according to recent research Jianing Li and I published, that react to a fact-check by updating their attitudes to reflect the verifiable truth. But there is a dark side to when this kind of reporting is successful. That is because it can lead to audience beliefs that the news outlets providing contextual, accurate coverage are biased.

Fears of being branded biased, relying upon old patterns of access-oriented approaches to coverage, and rushing to endorse false, but comfortable, claims of bothsidesism will push some news organizations to engage in false equivalence. They will uncritically highlight and amplify unfounded claims made by partisan elites and seek out the most extreme voices for comment. These behaviors are likely to amplify identity over evidence, increase perceptions of division and media bias, and affect news media agendas more generally.

Democracies depend upon having enough information to make reasoned choices and give penalties for lying. Many pockets and corners of journalism showed laudable efforts to provide that information over the past years. But with a new administration taking over in January, and indeed, as Ben Toff already predicted in this series, 2021 will mark a “return to normalcy.” How news outlets define normal will depend, in part, on how they navigate the competing pressures to report the verifiable truth in context and earn their audience’s trust. Now that the election is over, democracy is no longer on the ballot — but it is still at stake.

Michael W. Wagner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin.

The United States is a fractured democracy. In 2021, some journalism will exacerbate political schisms in destructive ways, while other journalism will play critical roles in helping to re-knit the civic fabric.

Why? Journalists face key challenges related to trust and legitimacy in 2021. My prediction is that we will see sizable (and democratically consequential) variance in how news outlets deal with the competing pressures they face when interpreting the behaviors of our country’s elected officials, organized interests, and citizens.

Journalists face twin pressures: the continuously evolving natures of both how news organizations determine what is legitimate/verifiably true and how they build and keep trust with their audience. Notably, many journalists and news outlets chose to cover the election and its aftermath through the democracy-worthy lens proposed by the Election Coverage and Democracy Network — highlighting the processes and normalcy of electoral democracy, even as the results were baselessly disputed by the president and many of his supporters both in and out of government.

Some news outlets will continue this style of reporting: helping citizens understand some of the more basic machinations of government, when explicit and baseless norm and rule violations occur, and what the verifiable truth is — even when it may require unbalanced, asymmetric reporting.

By doing this, journalists help civic-minded citizens — especially those who are willing to admit what they do not know. These are the people, according to recent research Jianing Li and I published, that react to a fact-check by updating their attitudes to reflect the verifiable truth. But there is a dark side to when this kind of reporting is successful. That is because it can lead to audience beliefs that the news outlets providing contextual, accurate coverage are biased.

Fears of being branded biased, relying upon old patterns of access-oriented approaches to coverage, and rushing to endorse false, but comfortable, claims of bothsidesism will push some news organizations to engage in false equivalence. They will uncritically highlight and amplify unfounded claims made by partisan elites and seek out the most extreme voices for comment. These behaviors are likely to amplify identity over evidence, increase perceptions of division and media bias, and affect news media agendas more generally.

Democracies depend upon having enough information to make reasoned choices and give penalties for lying. Many pockets and corners of journalism showed laudable efforts to provide that information over the past years. But with a new administration taking over in January, and indeed, as Ben Toff already predicted in this series, 2021 will mark a “return to normalcy.” How news outlets define normal will depend, in part, on how they navigate the competing pressures to report the verifiable truth in context and earn their audience’s trust. Now that the election is over, democracy is no longer on the ballot — but it is still at stake.

Michael W. Wagner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin.

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