The rise of nationalism becomes a local story

“If newsroom leaders don’t have a plan to cover the ‘Big Lie’ locally, they must prioritize it as soon as possible.”

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, the growing threat to our democratic system grows stronger by the day. The battle is no longer being fought at the Capitol, live on cable news. It’s happening at the state and local level, behind closed doors, where supporters of former President Trump are attempting to change election rules.

National outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post are aggressively covering this movement. In 2022, we need sustained attention at the local and state level. Not an easy task when so many local newsrooms are struggling with retention, budgets, and the ongoing pandemic. That means if newsroom leaders don’t have a plan to cover the ‘Big Lie’ locally, they must prioritize it as soon as possible.

Here are some ways to get started.

  • Research and create a list of all the local and state officials who are on record as supporting Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election and that voter fraud took place. This includes officials who have downplayed the actions of insurrectionists on Jan. 6. Provide the context around their involvement if they are mentioned in a story. Be extraordinarily careful if you use them as sources, given their history of perpetuating a lie.
  • Reveal the systems, structures, and history at play in your region. Who has political power and how did they get it? Which groups have been left out of civic debate and why?  Local journalists can hold power to account by asking how policies and structures that have traditionally advantaged white people are being reimagined (or not) for a more equitable and less racist future. This is not advocacy; this is about generating informed discussions about the future of our communities and our democratic structures.
  • Focus on the nuts and bolts of voting, like how to register or where and when to vote. Provide voter guides, especially on local races like judges and school board elections, which often have low turnout. Avoid horse race coverage at all costs. Consider using Jay Rosen’s Citizen’s Agenda approach when covering elections, asking voters what their priorities are and pressing candidates for their positions on those issues.
  • Produce detailed explainers on how votes are counted. Show how the sausage is made and how election officials investigate charges of fraud. Report on the integrity of the count.
  • Break format on political coverage. Allow candidates to fully explain their positions. In our newsroom, we plan to allow for in-depth discussions with candidates for top local offices rather than debate formats. We made this decision because we believe traditional debates can often be more contentious rather than allowing a clear view of a candidate’s positions and style. Be sure that you’re bringing your audience up to speed on big local issues instead of assuming they’ve followed the matter closely.

Reporting these stories in creative ways and distributing them widely will be the challenge of 2022.

Kristen Muller is chief content officer of Southern California Public Radio.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, the growing threat to our democratic system grows stronger by the day. The battle is no longer being fought at the Capitol, live on cable news. It’s happening at the state and local level, behind closed doors, where supporters of former President Trump are attempting to change election rules.

National outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post are aggressively covering this movement. In 2022, we need sustained attention at the local and state level. Not an easy task when so many local newsrooms are struggling with retention, budgets, and the ongoing pandemic. That means if newsroom leaders don’t have a plan to cover the ‘Big Lie’ locally, they must prioritize it as soon as possible.

Here are some ways to get started.

  • Research and create a list of all the local and state officials who are on record as supporting Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election and that voter fraud took place. This includes officials who have downplayed the actions of insurrectionists on Jan. 6. Provide the context around their involvement if they are mentioned in a story. Be extraordinarily careful if you use them as sources, given their history of perpetuating a lie.
  • Reveal the systems, structures, and history at play in your region. Who has political power and how did they get it? Which groups have been left out of civic debate and why?  Local journalists can hold power to account by asking how policies and structures that have traditionally advantaged white people are being reimagined (or not) for a more equitable and less racist future. This is not advocacy; this is about generating informed discussions about the future of our communities and our democratic structures.
  • Focus on the nuts and bolts of voting, like how to register or where and when to vote. Provide voter guides, especially on local races like judges and school board elections, which often have low turnout. Avoid horse race coverage at all costs. Consider using Jay Rosen’s Citizen’s Agenda approach when covering elections, asking voters what their priorities are and pressing candidates for their positions on those issues.
  • Produce detailed explainers on how votes are counted. Show how the sausage is made and how election officials investigate charges of fraud. Report on the integrity of the count.
  • Break format on political coverage. Allow candidates to fully explain their positions. In our newsroom, we plan to allow for in-depth discussions with candidates for top local offices rather than debate formats. We made this decision because we believe traditional debates can often be more contentious rather than allowing a clear view of a candidate’s positions and style. Be sure that you’re bringing your audience up to speed on big local issues instead of assuming they’ve followed the matter closely.

Reporting these stories in creative ways and distributing them widely will be the challenge of 2022.

Kristen Muller is chief content officer of Southern California Public Radio.

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Shannon McGregor & Carolyn Schmitt

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