The year U.S. media stops screwing around and becomes pro-democracy

“Let’s see one of our big media organizations step up and declare itself a pro-democracy newsroom, and spell out what that means and how it will shape their coverage.”

This isn’t so much of a prediction as it is a demand.

I’m tired of the both-sides-ism, which we’ve all talked aboutad nauseam, that is still being pumped out of our nation’s top news organizations. ENOUGH already.

There are not two sides to hate. There are not two sides to straight-up lies. There are not two sides to basic human rights and dignity.

There are not two sides to democracy.

For decades, the largest media organizations in the United States have styled themselves as the Fourth Estate. A free and fair press is critical to democracy, right? Or consider that “democracy dies in darkness.”

Yet the U.S. media keeps allowing itself to be used again and again and again as a tool against democracy because it cannot break out of a completely outdated way of covering politics.

There is a difference between covering democracy and elections, government, politics, and policy. Consider the following definitions, from Oxford Languages and Google:

  • Politics: “The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”
  • Government: “The governing body of a nation, state, or community.”
  • Policy: “A course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, party, business, or individual.”
  • Democracy: “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”

This country’s dominant media companies focus far too much attention on politics, and not nearly enough on democracy and government. Politics, by its nature, can be divisive and polarizing and can drive traffic. It generates attractive headlines. And it’s generally formulaic, making it easy content to produce.

Anti-democracy actors in the U.S. have taken advantage of that — and the media has let them.

Moving out of this kind of mindset and into a pro-democracy mindset will take real change. It will take a serious self-reflection, the likes of which the contemporary media landscape in the U.S. has never seen. It will take rewriting of internal ethics codes, social media policies, and more.

Journalism organizations in the U.S. need to interrogate their relationship to democracy, and then stand up for the role they seek to fill. Let’s see one of our big media organizations step up and declare itself a pro-democracy newsroom, and spell out what that means and how it will shape their coverage. I’d like to see democracy mission statements, democracy reporters (which we are seeing in several newsrooms), and consistent, year-round coverage of how democracy and government works.

“The first thing news organizations have to do is announce they are pro-democracy, pro-truth, pro-science, pro-evidence and pro-voting,” CNN paraphrased New York University professor Jay Rosen as saying a year ago.

Here are a few more things I’d like to see:

  • Stop platforming liars. You don’t need to broadcast or write extensively about lies about election outcomes or disinformation about how the election works unless there’s an urgent impact.
  • Use clear, plain language when it comes to reporting on elections and democracy. Modifier from Resolve Philly can help.
  • Drop the both-sides reporting on issues like gerrymandering and legislation that curbs voting rights. You can explain why one side wants to restrict voting, but do it clearly and don’t give them space to spew misinformation. (In other words, don’t quote them or let them speak freely on camera. If you need coaching on how to properly interview powerful liars, I love how Razia Iqbal does it at the BBC.)
  • Pay more attention to headlines and ensure the language is crystal-clear. The reason the New York Times Pitchbotparody account is so popular is because of how embarrassingly true it skews to real life.
  • Let your staff stand up for democracy — in their stories, on social media, and with yard signs at their homes. (Yes, I said YARD SIGNS.)
  • Participate in democracy with your community. Encourage your staff to volunteer as poll workers and help coordinate voting registration events. I loved how Davis Broadcasting and The Courier Echo Latino newspaper were community partners at this recent voting event in Georgia. You gotta do more than present candidate forums when you’re pro-democracy.

Need more? Check out this thorough democracy reporting toolkit from Democracy SOS, the Citizen’s Agenda, and the new Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard University.

We need this change.

Journalism as an industry needs to stop hiding behind its ethical standards and meet the moment. Otherwise, we’re going to both-sides-ourselves right into authoritarianism.

Stefanie Murray is director of the Center for Cooperative Media.

This isn’t so much of a prediction as it is a demand.

I’m tired of the both-sides-ism, which we’ve all talked aboutad nauseam, that is still being pumped out of our nation’s top news organizations. ENOUGH already.

There are not two sides to hate. There are not two sides to straight-up lies. There are not two sides to basic human rights and dignity.

There are not two sides to democracy.

For decades, the largest media organizations in the United States have styled themselves as the Fourth Estate. A free and fair press is critical to democracy, right? Or consider that “democracy dies in darkness.”

Yet the U.S. media keeps allowing itself to be used again and again and again as a tool against democracy because it cannot break out of a completely outdated way of covering politics.

There is a difference between covering democracy and elections, government, politics, and policy. Consider the following definitions, from Oxford Languages and Google:

  • Politics: “The activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.”
  • Government: “The governing body of a nation, state, or community.”
  • Policy: “A course or principle of action adopted or proposed by a government, party, business, or individual.”
  • Democracy: “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”

This country’s dominant media companies focus far too much attention on politics, and not nearly enough on democracy and government. Politics, by its nature, can be divisive and polarizing and can drive traffic. It generates attractive headlines. And it’s generally formulaic, making it easy content to produce.

Anti-democracy actors in the U.S. have taken advantage of that — and the media has let them.

Moving out of this kind of mindset and into a pro-democracy mindset will take real change. It will take a serious self-reflection, the likes of which the contemporary media landscape in the U.S. has never seen. It will take rewriting of internal ethics codes, social media policies, and more.

Journalism organizations in the U.S. need to interrogate their relationship to democracy, and then stand up for the role they seek to fill. Let’s see one of our big media organizations step up and declare itself a pro-democracy newsroom, and spell out what that means and how it will shape their coverage. I’d like to see democracy mission statements, democracy reporters (which we are seeing in several newsrooms), and consistent, year-round coverage of how democracy and government works.

“The first thing news organizations have to do is announce they are pro-democracy, pro-truth, pro-science, pro-evidence and pro-voting,” CNN paraphrased New York University professor Jay Rosen as saying a year ago.

Here are a few more things I’d like to see:

  • Stop platforming liars. You don’t need to broadcast or write extensively about lies about election outcomes or disinformation about how the election works unless there’s an urgent impact.
  • Use clear, plain language when it comes to reporting on elections and democracy. Modifier from Resolve Philly can help.
  • Drop the both-sides reporting on issues like gerrymandering and legislation that curbs voting rights. You can explain why one side wants to restrict voting, but do it clearly and don’t give them space to spew misinformation. (In other words, don’t quote them or let them speak freely on camera. If you need coaching on how to properly interview powerful liars, I love how Razia Iqbal does it at the BBC.)
  • Pay more attention to headlines and ensure the language is crystal-clear. The reason the New York Times Pitchbotparody account is so popular is because of how embarrassingly true it skews to real life.
  • Let your staff stand up for democracy — in their stories, on social media, and with yard signs at their homes. (Yes, I said YARD SIGNS.)
  • Participate in democracy with your community. Encourage your staff to volunteer as poll workers and help coordinate voting registration events. I loved how Davis Broadcasting and The Courier Echo Latino newspaper were community partners at this recent voting event in Georgia. You gotta do more than present candidate forums when you’re pro-democracy.

Need more? Check out this thorough democracy reporting toolkit from Democracy SOS, the Citizen’s Agenda, and the new Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard University.

We need this change.

Journalism as an industry needs to stop hiding behind its ethical standards and meet the moment. Otherwise, we’re going to both-sides-ourselves right into authoritarianism.

Stefanie Murray is director of the Center for Cooperative Media.

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