It’s no secret: U.S. democracy is under serious threat.
Politicians use rigged maps to entrench themselves in power, allowing them to ignore the will of voters. Hundreds of members of Congress, state lawmakers, and top state officials — including chief elections officials — deny the results of the last presidential contest. And a leading candidate for 2024 talks openly about abusing the power of the federal government to retaliate against his political opponents.
“No longer can we take for granted that people will accept election results as legitimate,” warned a recent report by the Safeguarding Democracy Project, a committee of election experts convened by the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. “The United States faces continued threats to peaceful transitions of power after election authorities (or courts) have declared a presidential election winner.”
No surprise, then, that more than 8 in 10 respondents to a recent poll said they were worried about the state of American democracy, with 1 in 4 saying they’re very worried.
But much of the media is failing to convey the danger.
At the first Republican presidential debate last month, not a single question was asked about democracy.
Even when the subject is given attention, it’s often treated in the same way journalists cover fights over more traditional issues like taxes, health care, or education: Reporters quote both sides — those looking to restrict democracy, and those working to protect it — assess the political implications, and perhaps lament our growing “polarization”.
A growing number of newsrooms are recognizing that this approach doesn’t meet the moment. Democracy is different from those other issues, because it underlies all of them. Without a healthy democracy, voters can’t make collective decisions that have legitimacy, no matter the issue. Nor can Americans count on having a free press to cover the debate.
That’s why a drive is underway to help bolster the foundations of our system through “pro-democracy” coverage. On Friday, States Newsroom is joining 135 news organizations for Democracy Day 2023, a nationwide pro-democracy reporting collaborative, launched last year, that’s organized by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media in New Jersey and the Institute for Nonprofit News.
The pro-democracy coverage that participating newsrooms will produce can take a range of forms. It might be journalism that shines a light on the most urgent threats to democracy and holds anti-democratic actors accountable.
But it also can be journalism that gives citizens the tools they need to participate in the process; or that explains how local government works and helps people access needed services; or that uplifts the ordinary Americans working to protect and strengthen democracy.
“It doesn’t have to be negative and only focus on the threats,” said Beatrice Forman, a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Democracy Day’s project coordinator. “Pro-democracy journalism can also focus on solutions to those threats: Who are the people on the ground doing things to enfranchise people and to make people feel comfortable exercising their civic rights?”
Here are just a few of the stories that States Newsroom’s 36 outlets have produced for Democracy Day:
It may be only one day. But Democracy Day aims to kick-start a more permanent shift in approach.
The goal, said Forman, “is to really catalyze an industry-wide transformation towards content that doesn’t treat politics like a game, doesn’t cater to political insiders, (but instead) caters to actual people wanting to know more about how their government works.”
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