We’ll find out whether journalism can, indeed, save democracy

“It’s not enough anymore to just hope your stories help people make better decisions. You have to hope your stories help preserve our democracy.”

It’s a motto that’s been ingrained in our brains since journalism school or our first internship: Journalism is the guardian of democracy.

Today, U.S. democracy is in real peril. We’re about to find out if journalism can, indeed, live up to its lofty ideals.

Sure, we avoided the worst possible outcomes for democracy in November’s midterm elections. Election-deniers failed to seize control of the election systems of important swing states. But the threat hasn’t faded. This month the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case, Moore v. Harper, that tests what was until recently a fringe legal premise, the Independent State Legislature theory, and could open the door to massive electoral shenanigans.

On one hand, many journalists have met the challenge: fearlessly spotlighting the key threats to our democracy. On the other hand, plenty of stories still read like the old climate change coverage used to: treating the issue like a “Republicans said, Democrats said” affair that’s up for debate. (A few years ago, I used this space to predict that the press would stop covering threats to voting this way. I was wrong.)

A lot of stories over the last year that read the same way: The first paragraph would describe Republicans doing something that’s clearly undermining democracy. Then, the second paragraph would say: “Democrats say Republicans are undermining democracy.”

That’s a dangerous framing that treats our democracy as something to be simply seen through partisan filters. Plus, it’s not true! Democrats aren’t just saying this. So are constitutional scholars, historians, political scientists, many Republicans and — get this — even the people orchestrating the anti-democratic movement. They’ll openly say: If having a democracy means a Biden administration, then they’re not down with democracy any more.

Two years ago, I predicted that this anti-democratic movement would lead to the creation of a democracy beat across news organizations. That one fared a little better than my first prediction. There’s reason to believe this focus has had a real impact.

Still, a beat — or even team — alone just isn’t enough. News organizations, from local community organizations up to the big national outlets, are going to have to become explicitly pro-democracy.

What exactly does that mean? Here’s the definition from Howard University’s new Center for Journalism and Democracy, which helped inspire this piece: “Pro-democracy journalists report what’s true. They hold liars accountable. They use direct language. They inform voters with clear and careful warnings when legislation, elected officials, or candidates threaten the continuation of democracy.” And here’s their toolkit for how to make sure you have a pro-democracy newsroom.

Just as important, here’s what it isn’t: A pro-democracy newsroom ditches the old tradition of framing politics as an argument (or worse, contest) between Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s a tired framing that needed to be tossed out anyway.

There’s a much better way to be independent, fair and effective than assuming a centrist political stance. We make judgment calls every day about the kind of behavior we authoritatively decide is bad. Murder? Bad. A school board member stealing money? Also bad. We don’t need to call up a Democrat to ask them for an opinion on murder.

So it’s fairly simple: Taking actions that erode our democracy? Really bad.

The democracy reporting teams and editorial leadership urgently need to become truly racially representative. This entire anti-democratic movement is a response to a multi-racial democracy. This isn’t a new phenomenon in U.S. history. It’s just a new cycle. And to cover it right, you’re going to need reporters from the communities that U.S. democracy has long excluded.

It’s worth taking a second to figure out what we’ve meant when we’ve said journalism is the guardian of democracy. I interpret it as this: We give people the information they need to make informed decisions and participate in civil society.

We still need to hold tight to that ideal. But it’s not enough — and maybe never was. For one, election deniers and others who would undermine our democratic traditions are actually getting elected. For another, the key decisions being made aren’t being made at the ballot box: they’re being made by local party leaders or Supreme Court judges.

So it’s not enough anymore to just hope your stories help people make better decisions. You have to hope your stories help preserve our democracy. To do that, we’re going to need newsrooms to become explicitly pro-democracy.

If they can do that, we might have a chance to live up to our big claims about our role in society. And, just maybe, we can then get to the work of making our flawed democracy better, rather than just keep it from going backwards.

Andrew Donohue is executive editor of projects at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

It’s a motto that’s been ingrained in our brains since journalism school or our first internship: Journalism is the guardian of democracy.

Today, U.S. democracy is in real peril. We’re about to find out if journalism can, indeed, live up to its lofty ideals.

Sure, we avoided the worst possible outcomes for democracy in November’s midterm elections. Election-deniers failed to seize control of the election systems of important swing states. But the threat hasn’t faded. This month the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case, Moore v. Harper, that tests what was until recently a fringe legal premise, the Independent State Legislature theory, and could open the door to massive electoral shenanigans.

On one hand, many journalists have met the challenge: fearlessly spotlighting the key threats to our democracy. On the other hand, plenty of stories still read like the old climate change coverage used to: treating the issue like a “Republicans said, Democrats said” affair that’s up for debate. (A few years ago, I used this space to predict that the press would stop covering threats to voting this way. I was wrong.)

A lot of stories over the last year that read the same way: The first paragraph would describe Republicans doing something that’s clearly undermining democracy. Then, the second paragraph would say: “Democrats say Republicans are undermining democracy.”

That’s a dangerous framing that treats our democracy as something to be simply seen through partisan filters. Plus, it’s not true! Democrats aren’t just saying this. So are constitutional scholars, historians, political scientists, many Republicans and — get this — even the people orchestrating the anti-democratic movement. They’ll openly say: If having a democracy means a Biden administration, then they’re not down with democracy any more.

Two years ago, I predicted that this anti-democratic movement would lead to the creation of a democracy beat across news organizations. That one fared a little better than my first prediction. There’s reason to believe this focus has had a real impact.

Still, a beat — or even team — alone just isn’t enough. News organizations, from local community organizations up to the big national outlets, are going to have to become explicitly pro-democracy.

What exactly does that mean? Here’s the definition from Howard University’s new Center for Journalism and Democracy, which helped inspire this piece: “Pro-democracy journalists report what’s true. They hold liars accountable. They use direct language. They inform voters with clear and careful warnings when legislation, elected officials, or candidates threaten the continuation of democracy.” And here’s their toolkit for how to make sure you have a pro-democracy newsroom.

Just as important, here’s what it isn’t: A pro-democracy newsroom ditches the old tradition of framing politics as an argument (or worse, contest) between Democrats vs. Republicans. It’s a tired framing that needed to be tossed out anyway.

There’s a much better way to be independent, fair and effective than assuming a centrist political stance. We make judgment calls every day about the kind of behavior we authoritatively decide is bad. Murder? Bad. A school board member stealing money? Also bad. We don’t need to call up a Democrat to ask them for an opinion on murder.

So it’s fairly simple: Taking actions that erode our democracy? Really bad.

The democracy reporting teams and editorial leadership urgently need to become truly racially representative. This entire anti-democratic movement is a response to a multi-racial democracy. This isn’t a new phenomenon in U.S. history. It’s just a new cycle. And to cover it right, you’re going to need reporters from the communities that U.S. democracy has long excluded.

It’s worth taking a second to figure out what we’ve meant when we’ve said journalism is the guardian of democracy. I interpret it as this: We give people the information they need to make informed decisions and participate in civil society.

We still need to hold tight to that ideal. But it’s not enough — and maybe never was. For one, election deniers and others who would undermine our democratic traditions are actually getting elected. For another, the key decisions being made aren’t being made at the ballot box: they’re being made by local party leaders or Supreme Court judges.

So it’s not enough anymore to just hope your stories help people make better decisions. You have to hope your stories help preserve our democracy. To do that, we’re going to need newsrooms to become explicitly pro-democracy.

If they can do that, we might have a chance to live up to our big claims about our role in society. And, just maybe, we can then get to the work of making our flawed democracy better, rather than just keep it from going backwards.

Andrew Donohue is executive editor of projects at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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