In his Nieman Lab 2021 prediction, CW Anderson detailed the dramatic changes journalists have made in response to increasingly authoritarian President Trump. He asked: “… will this continue to change under Biden?” Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. Over a dozen other predictions in this collection sound various alarm bells around the news media and their failure to defend democracy.
Although it has survived a coup attempt and the efforts of former President Trump and the Republican Party to overthrow a democratically elected government, democracy in the United States is slipping back dangerously. For the first time our country is on a list of those who move away from democracy towards authoritarianism. The report concludes that “democracy is resilient”. But democracy only works if we work for it.
Like Cornel West highlighted, democracy is not a noun but rather a verb. “Democracy is not just a system of governance, as we tend to think of it, but a cultural way of being.” Culturally, we are moving away from democracy. As a dominant cultural and political force, the press is called upon to play an important role in our movement towards or from democracy. But under the familiar comforts of President Biden, the press quickly reverted to worn-out reporting methods, despite blatant and continuing attempts by members of the Republican Party to dismantle our system of electoral democracy.
Academic approaches to the press fail to hold news media accountable for their unique role in a democracy. Most academic studies of how the press covers politics attempt to understand content through an informational lens (the substance of politics or issues) or a strategic lens (a game / strategy framework with winners and winners). losers). These two reporting models position themselves as enemies, with a considerably more normative value seen in the information model. Instead of seeing political coverage through these frameworks, we should instead question the role of the press in bringing us closer to or away from democracy.
A democracy-centric framework values journalists who call undemocratic acts what they are – and positions them as part of this nation’s democratic health, rather than as legitimate political positions or as a win / lose political strategy.
Why aren’t journalists doing it already? Of course, the most serious journalists would consider themselves ardent defenders of democracy. But the pernicious practice of objectivity allows journalists and their critics to slip into a “two-sided” reporting model. This made accountability journalism all too easy to criticize as biased – especially when holding those in power accountable for their attacks on democracy would largely result in reporting on the Republican Party’s authoritarian turn.
But as academics, we can do more to support and encourage the press to defend democracy. A range of academic traditions – from sociology to political science to communication – study the role and functioning of a press in societies, and through this, find ways to critique it. But our scholarly schemas fail to conceptualize what democracy-centric journalism might look like in practice. Press specialists argued for a model of public journalism: media coverage that draws on, and sometimes is created in cooperation with, ordinary people living in this country. Such coverage would focus the concerns of citizens rather than those of elected officials. But he would ignore that moment when focusing the concerns of millions of conservative Americans would only serve to legitimize lies and authoritarian tendencies.
Whether they focus their reporting on elected officials or ordinary Americans, journalists face an almost impossible choice when it comes to the Republican Party. Cover them up and you legitimize authoritarianism. Leave them alone and you are giving up a chance (however small) of piercing the people or officials on the fence.
It doesn’t help that the Republican Party has, for decades, positioned journalists and the press as the enemy. The Trump era has unleashed attacks that have reached alarming levels both in frequency and brutality. In particular, a the key aspect of identifying as a Republican is hostility to the media. Add to this research that shows journalists may self-censor in countries experiencing democratic retreat, leading to coverage that, even inadvertently, legitimizes authoritarianism instead of democracy. As the United States joins the list of declining countries, democracy-centric journalism is vital.
So what can journalists do? And how can academics, especially those of us who are engaged in public service, help?
As key pillars of a democracy and creators of meaning in culture, journalists must work deliberately and diligently toward the democracy. They must “clearly and repeatedlyCover the Republican Party’s attempts to gut the foundations of our democracy through voter suppression, minority rule through partisan gerrymandering, and partisan control of the election administration, among others.
Academics must also work deliberately and diligently toward the democracy. We must avoid both sides in attempts to appear scientifically ‘objective’. We can come together to provide empirical support for journalists in attacks on democracy.
Working for democracy means academics and journalists must clearly and Many times position the Republican Party’s attempts to undermine our electoral democracy as authoritarian and anti-democratic.