The rise of the democracy beat

“These reporters won’t see their work in terms of politics or parties, but instead through the lens of honesty, fairness, and transparency.”

We are currently watching an institutional attempt to overthrow the results of a legitimate presidential election. This is not a fringe movement; it is becoming central to one of the two major political parties we have. And it has little concern for the truth.

This movement is not going away — even if its attempt to overturn the results of November’s election fails. What it does over the next year, and the three after that, will determine the trajectory of our democracy. And as this unfolds, there will be no assignment more important in newsrooms across the country as the democracy beat.

The democracy beat is distinct from the broader politics or government beat. These reporters will focus exclusively on the modern threats to our democracy. These reporters won’t see their work in terms of politics or parties, but instead through the lens of honesty, fairness, and transparency.

They’ll cover something that is, at its heart, a local story. It will unfold far from the spotlights of Washington. And it will do the most basic and vital things that journalism is supposed to do: Safeguard democracy. Tell the truth.

Even if this anti-democratic movement doesn’t succeed over the next month, it’s shown a path to undermining the legitimacy of an election. It’s exposed how much of our system relies on the integrity of the officials in county canvassing boards, state legislatures, and the offices of each secretary of state.

One of the things saving us from chaos is the honesty of the handful of officials in these positions. Imagine if there had been secretaries of state in a couple of key states who were giving credence to the baseless fraud claims. Now imagine if there was a concerted effort to get more partisan people into these positions for 2024.

The same goes for the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. Or the leaders of the Michigan Legislature who flew to D.C. to meet with President Trump before certifying the election, as partisans pushed them and leaders in other states not to certify the election results or to appoint faithless electors to the Electoral College. Attorneys general and members of Congress have actively joined this movement.

This is scary stuff — not if you care about partisan battles, but if you care about the integrity of American democracy. It’s a challenging story to cover because so much of the threat comes from one political party. False equivalence will still be a problem. But over the past four years, reporters and editors as a whole have gotten much more comfortable with openly calling out lies and baseless claims, moving away from the “he said, she said” style of political journalism. This year, the press was ready for Trump’s bogus claims about voter fraud.

Now we’ll need reporters on the beat pinpointing the next venues for the fights over who can vote and who’s in charge of the elections. Not all the tactics will be new or unique; we’ll see plenty of old-school voter suppression too. State legislatures will create restrictions on who can vote when and where and change rules about when certain votes get counted and how. These legislatures are also going to be kicking off redistricting soon. It won’t be enough to cover voting problems on election day and the lawsuits afterward.

We’ll need an entire corps of reporters with skill and support to be the early warning system for the next big threats to the foundation of our democracy. The stakes are high, as are the opportunities for shenanigans.

What a great beat.

Andrew Donohue is managing editor of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

We are currently watching an institutional attempt to overthrow the results of a legitimate presidential election. This is not a fringe movement; it is becoming central to one of the two major political parties we have. And it has little concern for the truth.

This movement is not going away — even if its attempt to overturn the results of November’s election fails. What it does over the next year, and the three after that, will determine the trajectory of our democracy. And as this unfolds, there will be no assignment more important in newsrooms across the country as the democracy beat.

The democracy beat is distinct from the broader politics or government beat. These reporters will focus exclusively on the modern threats to our democracy. These reporters won’t see their work in terms of politics or parties, but instead through the lens of honesty, fairness, and transparency.

They’ll cover something that is, at its heart, a local story. It will unfold far from the spotlights of Washington. And it will do the most basic and vital things that journalism is supposed to do: Safeguard democracy. Tell the truth.

Even if this anti-democratic movement doesn’t succeed over the next month, it’s shown a path to undermining the legitimacy of an election. It’s exposed how much of our system relies on the integrity of the officials in county canvassing boards, state legislatures, and the offices of each secretary of state.

One of the things saving us from chaos is the honesty of the handful of officials in these positions. Imagine if there had been secretaries of state in a couple of key states who were giving credence to the baseless fraud claims. Now imagine if there was a concerted effort to get more partisan people into these positions for 2024.

The same goes for the Wayne County Board of Canvassers. Or the leaders of the Michigan Legislature who flew to D.C. to meet with President Trump before certifying the election, as partisans pushed them and leaders in other states not to certify the election results or to appoint faithless electors to the Electoral College. Attorneys general and members of Congress have actively joined this movement.

This is scary stuff — not if you care about partisan battles, but if you care about the integrity of American democracy. It’s a challenging story to cover because so much of the threat comes from one political party. False equivalence will still be a problem. But over the past four years, reporters and editors as a whole have gotten much more comfortable with openly calling out lies and baseless claims, moving away from the “he said, she said” style of political journalism. This year, the press was ready for Trump’s bogus claims about voter fraud.

Now we’ll need reporters on the beat pinpointing the next venues for the fights over who can vote and who’s in charge of the elections. Not all the tactics will be new or unique; we’ll see plenty of old-school voter suppression too. State legislatures will create restrictions on who can vote when and where and change rules about when certain votes get counted and how. These legislatures are also going to be kicking off redistricting soon. It won’t be enough to cover voting problems on election day and the lawsuits afterward.

We’ll need an entire corps of reporters with skill and support to be the early warning system for the next big threats to the foundation of our democracy. The stakes are high, as are the opportunities for shenanigans.

What a great beat.

Andrew Donohue is managing editor of Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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