The backlash against pro-democracy reporting is coming

“We will be increasingly likely to hear that pro-democracy reporting is biased, dangerous, and un-American.”

Despite most 2020 election deniers losing their bids for statewide public office in 2022, more than 100 were elected in U.S. House and state legislative races. Many news outlets covered the 2022 elections from a pro-democracy point of view — highlighting facts about electoral results from prior elections, previewing the multiple safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the 2022 elections, and either minimizing attention to false claims of fraud or reporting the claims with clear declarations of the verifiable truth about previous elections results. Though imperfect and less robust than many might prefer, election journalism improved in 2022.

This progress is in danger.

While democracy is still in crisis in the United States, the advances many scholars and journalists have made to cast a revealing light on anti-democratic behaviors will face considerable headwinds in 2023.

In October 2020, I helped organize a group of six dozen political communication scholars who asked journalists to take a “stand for truth over partisan equivocation” and provided a set of strategies that could shape a democracy-worthy approach to election coverage.

In light of those recommendations, I predicted the following in this space in 2020: “Some journalism will exacerbate political schisms in destructive ways while other journalism will play critical roles in helping to re-knit the civic fabric.” In 2021, I chronicled evidence supporting and opposing my 2020 prognostication and predicted that too many mainstream outlets would “avoid a pro-democracy ethos,” repeating the problems of the past in an environment where the stakes could not be higher.

I got some of it right and some of it wrong. Again, many mainstream outlets not only framed stories from a pro-democracy point of view, but wrote transparently, fairly, and accurately while reporting news that was objectively better for one side than the other in American party politics. The good reporting was wonderful to see, though there was plenty of evidence to support my prediction as well.

In 2023, I predict that a backlash is coming — we will be increasingly likely to hear that pro-democracy reporting is biased, dangerous, and un-American.

Some of the backlash will come from folks favoring a more traditional journalism model, arguing that journalists cede objectivity, fairness, and balance when they approach reporting from a pro-democracy perspective.

Some of the backlash will come from far-right sources who argue that pro-democracy is just a fancy way of saying pro-Democrat.

Both of these perspectives will continue to miss a fundamental truth: Democracy cannot thrive or survive without a media ecosystem willing to report verifiable truths about the core tenets of democracy — even if those truths currently favor one major political party over another.

It is not that it should not be impermissible to take a side — it is that the taking of a side needs to be transparently and robustly hewed to the verifiable truth and that pro-democracy reporting aggressively pursues anti-democracy behaviors from all who conduct them.

Democracies depend upon providing citizens accurate information to make reasoned choices and to vote out leaders who repeatedly tell us things that are plainly not true. Without a robust defense of democracy-oriented reporting from experts and journalists alike, the recent improvements society has benefitted from in election journalism are in danger of disappearing.

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

Despite most 2020 election deniers losing their bids for statewide public office in 2022, more than 100 were elected in U.S. House and state legislative races. Many news outlets covered the 2022 elections from a pro-democracy point of view — highlighting facts about electoral results from prior elections, previewing the multiple safeguards in place to protect the integrity of the 2022 elections, and either minimizing attention to false claims of fraud or reporting the claims with clear declarations of the verifiable truth about previous elections results. Though imperfect and less robust than many might prefer, election journalism improved in 2022.

This progress is in danger.

While democracy is still in crisis in the United States, the advances many scholars and journalists have made to cast a revealing light on anti-democratic behaviors will face considerable headwinds in 2023.

In October 2020, I helped organize a group of six dozen political communication scholars who asked journalists to take a “stand for truth over partisan equivocation” and provided a set of strategies that could shape a democracy-worthy approach to election coverage.

In light of those recommendations, I predicted the following in this space in 2020: “Some journalism will exacerbate political schisms in destructive ways while other journalism will play critical roles in helping to re-knit the civic fabric.” In 2021, I chronicled evidence supporting and opposing my 2020 prognostication and predicted that too many mainstream outlets would “avoid a pro-democracy ethos,” repeating the problems of the past in an environment where the stakes could not be higher.

I got some of it right and some of it wrong. Again, many mainstream outlets not only framed stories from a pro-democracy point of view, but wrote transparently, fairly, and accurately while reporting news that was objectively better for one side than the other in American party politics. The good reporting was wonderful to see, though there was plenty of evidence to support my prediction as well.

In 2023, I predict that a backlash is coming — we will be increasingly likely to hear that pro-democracy reporting is biased, dangerous, and un-American.

Some of the backlash will come from folks favoring a more traditional journalism model, arguing that journalists cede objectivity, fairness, and balance when they approach reporting from a pro-democracy perspective.

Some of the backlash will come from far-right sources who argue that pro-democracy is just a fancy way of saying pro-Democrat.

Both of these perspectives will continue to miss a fundamental truth: Democracy cannot thrive or survive without a media ecosystem willing to report verifiable truths about the core tenets of democracy — even if those truths currently favor one major political party over another.

It is not that it should not be impermissible to take a side — it is that the taking of a side needs to be transparently and robustly hewed to the verifiable truth and that pro-democracy reporting aggressively pursues anti-democracy behaviors from all who conduct them.

Democracies depend upon providing citizens accurate information to make reasoned choices and to vote out leaders who repeatedly tell us things that are plainly not true. Without a robust defense of democracy-oriented reporting from experts and journalists alike, the recent improvements society has benefitted from in election journalism are in danger of disappearing.

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

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