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Why the media struggle to cover threats to democracy

Framing election denial as a danger may violate journalistic norms.

- May 8, 2024
Media and democracy have a complex relationship, and one that has become more complicated after many Republican lawmakers continued to deny the 2020 election results.
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At an April conference organized by the Columbia Journalism School, former President Barack Obama urged a group of journalists and media observers to commit themselves to the preservation of the nation’s democratic ideals. “Journalists have always been on the frontlines of democracy,” Obama said. “And that’s why it’s so important to find creative ways to reinvigorate quality journalism.”

In recent years, newsrooms across the country have embraced that sentiment. With threats to democracy increasing, major news organizations like the Washington Post and Associated Press have created beats and teams of reporters focused on challenges to democratic institutions. Some smaller regional outlets have done the same. One headline noted, “American democracy is under threat – and newsrooms are mobilizing to cover it.”

Can news organizations actually preserve democracy?

But for all the apparent mobilization, mainstream news organizations may struggle to cover politics in a way that preserves and promotes democracy. Commentators have pointed out that the creation of democracy beats and a focus on related issues may not be enough. Instead, the U.S. media may need a more fundamental rethinking about the way they cover threats to democracy, especially when those threats come from one of the major political parties.

That view is consistent with two new papers on media coverage of the 2022 midterm elections. Those elections featured nearly 300 GOP candidates for state and federal office who had challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 elections.

In one recently published article, journalism scholars Heesoo Jang and Daniel Kreiss find that news organizations gave little attention to election denial and failed to highlight the fundamental danger posed by candidates who refuse to accept the outcomes of elections. In large part, this appears due to the influence of journalistic norms that made news organizations hesitant to portray election-denying candidates as obstacles to democracy.

Jang and Kreiss argue that the rise of election deniers within the GOP constitutes a critical case to explore how the media respond to democratic threats. If candidates for office won’t respect the outcomes of free and fair elections – like 2020’s election, in which there is no credible evidence of fraud – then the peaceful transfer of power can’t happen. And without that, electoral democracy can’t function.

Should the media take a stronger stance on election denial?

To be sure, most mainstream news organizations have adopted the practice of debunking fraud claims about 2020. But Jang and Kreiss argue the media should go further, framing campaign coverage in a way that “positions election denial as a violation of democratic norms with deleterious implications for democracy.” Doing so would make clear that election denial is not just a run-of-the-mill campaign issue.

To examine how news organizations treated election denial in 2022, the authors drew a sample of 21 races that included an election-denying candidate. They then coded about 700 news stories, mainly from local news outlets, about those campaigns.

In their analysis, they first looked at the prevalence of “pro-democracy electoral frames” – stories that “highlight the necessity of fairness, the rule of law, and the necessity of a party being able to lose.” Overall, a small share of articles – about 6% – were framed in this way.

Jang and Kreiss also looked at the frequency of “weak” and “strong” statements about candidates’ election denial. Weak statements were those that noted a candidate had denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election – but the reporting did not refute that position. Strong statements, on the other hand, were those that included a debunking of false claims about 2020.

Both types of statements were infrequent, suggesting that candidates’ views about 2020 weren’t very prominent in campaign coverage. When they did come up, weak statements were slightly more common, appearing in 14 percent of articles compared to 10 percent for strong statements. Strong statements were more common in opinion pieces than straight news stories, but that difference was not large.

Why election denial is not a bigger issue in campaign coverage 

These findings indicate that election denial was not central to the way journalists portrayed the stakes of the 2022 midterms for their audiences. With the legitimacy of elections so central to the operation of democracy, why did it get so little attention?

Based on interviews with journalists, Jang and Kreiss suggest that the best explanation is the power of a prevailing set of journalistic norms.

First, reporters largely described their job as giving consumers information or facts. They did not see their role as providing context for disputes over elections or highlighting the implications of candidates having expressed a weak commitment to the peaceful transfer of power. Instead, they were more concerned with remaining “objective” or adhering to a norm of balanced coverage, a journalistic approach that has come under renewed criticism in recent years.

Second, reporters were concerned about maintaining their position as trusted sources of information for their audiences. One implication is that journalists were wary of alienating Republican news consumers by publishing what this audience might perceive as slanted coverage. This may be particularly salient in an era in which state and local news outlets have seen their audiences decline dramatically.

The journalistic tension between protecting democracy and adhering to journalistic norms is amplified by another recent paper. This one, by Erik Peterson, Shannon McGregor, and Ryan Block, reports the results of a survey of 253 local journalists who covered the 2022 congressional campaigns. The takeaway:

Journalists support efforts to increase the public’s trust in elections, but also feel compelled to let election deniers explain their views in the news.

For instance, the survey asked reporters to say how strongly they agreed with a series of statements about the role that campaign coverage should play. On a 7-point scale, the journalists tended to agree that election reporting should “identify threats to democracy” (an average of 6.2) and “increase trust in elections” (5.8).

The dilemma for journalists becomes clear

At the same time, there was virtually universal agreement that coverage should “let politicians explain their views” (6.8) and some support for the idea that reporting should “give every side equal coverage” (5.1). The dilemma here is clear: When candidates lodge unfounded claims about voter fraud, giving those views a platform will likely undermine the public’s faith in elections.

Peterson and colleagues also conducted an experiment to determine whether journalists views’ might change if they were encouraged to cover election denial as a threat to democracy. Half the journalists in the survey saw a tip sheet listing best practices for covering elections. For instance, one recommendation suggested “positioning baseless claims of election fraud as antidemocratic, rather than simply as partisan strategy.”

Respondents who saw the tip sheet did become more likely to say that covering a candidate’s votes on electoral certification was important, and to oppose headlines that recirculated false claims about election integrity. The experiment did not, however, affect journalists’ commitment to norms like balance that can work against covering election denial as a challenge to democracy.

The bottom line from these papers is how difficult it can be for media outlets to play the role that democracy advocates often expect for them. Adopting a more aggressively “pro-democracy” orientation would require violating norms that are baked into the standard practice of journalism. 

This research is also a reminder that the mere existence of an independent press free from government control is not sufficient to protect democracy. As Jang and Kreiss note, “Even a legacy press that is independent and commercial and adheres to professional journalism standards might fail to protect, or even actively undermine, electoral institutions given norms such as objectivity and balance that work against alerting the public to democratic threats.”