None of our newsroom leaders could possibly have imagined 10 years ago that fascist appeals to violence and racial hatred would be so common and effective, that the political discourse would be so awash in misinformation and disinformation, that homophobia and misogyny would make such a dramatic comeback, or that a con man who engineered a failed coup could be a front-runner for the presidency, posing a dire threat to the country’s future as a democracy.
But even as the nation faces another potentially cataclysmic election in 2024 — arguably the most perilous in American history — the mainstream news industry continues to engage in the same business-as-usual that got us here in the first place.
Maybe it’s time to change things up?
I write about this all the time on Press Watch. (Read my mission statement.) But for this piece, I decided to survey a few dozen experts — all of them critical readers of the news, many of them journalists – asking them for their suggestions of what our top newsrooms should do differently this time around.
Generally speaking, their answers are not radical. They are simply common sense.
Some call for changes that have been necessary for a long time and are now urgent — existentially so.
But some changes are specific to this moment when one of our two political parties has become so extremist and anti-democratic that both-sides reporting is no longer a safe harbor for political journalism. Indeed, it actively misinforms the public about the stakes of the coming election.
If you know someone in a leadership position in a major American newsroom, please send this to them and urge them to read it?
Pick the Right Frame
I’m increasingly persuaded that when it comes to political journalism, getting the frame right is as important as getting the facts straight. Whose terms are you using? What requires explanation and what doesn’t? What is normal and what is not?
Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of political rhetoric at Texas A&M University, proposes: “Use a ‘democracy frame’ instead of a horse race frame. What impact does the event/news item have on democracy in America?…
“So much policy is already decided by how political actors frame facts and events. It matters if we call the situation at the border a ‘humanitarian crisis’ or an ‘invasion’ or a ‘relief effort.’ News organizations should choose frames that humanize people and promote democracy.
“Promote democratic thinking through how you frame rather than allow your news organization to be used to frame things in non-democratic/authoritarian ways.”
Not the Odds But the Stakes
There was overwhelming agreement among the people I surveyed that newsroom leaders should cut back on horse race coverage in favor of news stories about how the different candidates and parties would govern.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and influential press critic has coined a phrase for that: “Not the odds but the stakes.”
He explains: ‘”Not the odds but the stakes’ is my shorthand for the organizing principle we most need from journalists covering the 2024 election. Not who has what chances of winning, but the consequences for our democracy. One implication of ‘stakes’ reporting is that it can draw on the knowledge and experience of reporters beyond those who are on the politics beat.”
Norman Ornstein, a veteran political observer, explains: “The preponderance of coverage of elections is always about horse race– who is up, who is down. (As an aside, often relying on bogus or squishy polls.) This is the easy way out. Elections have consequences, life and death ones and now a question of the life or death of the democracy. That ought to be the core of coverage in 2024.”
Victor Pickard, who teaches media studies at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests: “Instead of horse race coverage discuss the real-world implications of candidates’ policy proposals with concrete examples and counterexamples from U.S. history as well as from international contexts.”
Set the Agenda
The candidates too often serve as de facto assignment editors in our top newsrooms. They determine what the reporters write about. That’s a tremendous disservice to the public and a profound abnegation of the essential role of a free press.
Mark Jacob, a former Chicago Tribune editor turned freelance writer, urges newsrooms to “Create an agenda instead of being obedient to the candidates’ agendas. Pick an issue (Social Security, health care, etc.) and get clear policy positions from all the candidates. If a candidate refuses to answer or gives an evasive answer, call them out.”
Harry Shearer, the satirist who hosts “Le Show” on public radio, suggests: “Pick five ‘major issues’; devote a full week to both the issue and the candidates’ positions on the issue.
“Rather than waiting for a candidate/candidates to center attention on an issue, journalists should do the centering, and find comments in the public record relating to each issue. That is, journalism should be less passive and reactive, and more active.”
Parker Molloy, who critiques the media in her newsletter, The Present Age, advises: “You can do the quirky stories and palace intrigue stuff, you can talk about polling. You can absolutely do those things. But that needs to be secondary to helping readers understand what candidates believe, what they would do if elected, and what those policies would actually mean to the public.”
Focus on the Greatest Threats
There is no shortage of existential or near-existential issues that our newsrooms could and should make central to their 2024 coverage.
Climate change is arguably No. 1.
Edward Wasserman, a media ethicist and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley, notes: “Climate is the unrivaled problem of our time, and candidates must be challenged to show how they would exercise leadership in responding to it and developing policies, remedies or palliatives.”
The question should be: What are your plans to slow climate change and adjust to new conditions? Not: Do you think it’s a problem?
Trump’s attempt to steal the election is the most obvious of many indicators that a Republican victory in 2024 could damage or even end democracy as we know it.
Dean Baker, media critic and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research encourages a particular focus on one part of that threat: “Both the leading Republican presidential candidates have explicitly said they want to replace high-level civil servants with political cronies. This effectively means that we would have Trump/DeSantis loyalists running agencies like the FDA, FTC, Justice Department. The implications of this departure from a 150-year old system are more important than anything else in this race, but has gotten almost no attention.”
I’d put income inequality right up there as a dire issue and so would Wasserman, who writes: “Emphasize candidate positions that address inequality and insist that candidates who exploit social divisions also address inequality of wealth and income.”
Hamilton Nolan, a labor reporter for In These Times, urges newsroom leaders to “Put labor front and center. Explore how organized labor power can become political power. Report on what poor and working people need from politicians and not vice versa.”
And once they raise an issue, newsrooms need to keep at it.
Joanne Lipman, former chief content officer at Gannett, says: “Sustain coverage of important news events, don’t just drop them to jump on today’s latest hot takes.”
The Importance of Context
Lipman urges: “Provide context to news stories. Don’t just cover every event through the lens of left vs right.
“Journalists cover EVERY story through the lens of left vs right, which means news consumers don’t actually get real information about the issues. We are woefully ill-informed on basic topics. ‘Bidenomics’ has been quite successful, for example, but most people wrongly believe the economy is in the toilet. Our understanding of policies is even worse.”
James Fallows, a long-time reporter and editor who writes the newsletter Breaking the News, bluntly advises: “READ SOME GODDAMNED U.S. HISTORY. Almost every one of these arguments, divisions, solutions, and quandaries is part of the national past. And it’s necessary to explain this, when you realize that *most* Americans were born in 1985 or afterward (the median US age is now 38), so most US voters cast their first vote *after* the beginning of the Iraq war. Some of the clues need to be connected.”
Baker can’t stand it when people cite numbers that mean nothing to readers. “Put numbers in context. NO ONE has any idea what millions, billions, or trillions mean in the context of the federal budget or the U.S. economy. You are not conveying information if you just report these numbers without any context.”
What Not To Do
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at NYU who writes about authoritarianism, advises: “Do not treat Trump and GOP as conventional candidates, using ‘balanced’ coverage models suitable for democracies. Trump/GOP have exited democracy and are trying to take down America.”
Now that Tump and his allies have been charged in Georgia as part of a wide-ranging criminal enterprise, the coverage needs to reflect that, Ben-Ghiat says. “Take a cue from how organized crime is covered in terms of writing headlines, tweets, etc.”
“The live ‘town hall’ format should be completely abandoned,” writes Jacob. ” It makes it too easy for candidates to get away with lies or play to ringers in the audience. Better to do quiet one-on-ones. But in either case (one-on-one or town hall), record the interview and then splice in well-researched fact-checks before broadcasting.”
“Radically cut back on poll-based stories. Instead report more on location conditions,” writes Fallows. He continues: “For reporters: Resist writing ‘how will this play?’ stories. Instead write ‘how would this work?’ stories. (I.e. don’t imagine yourselves as unofficial campaign strategists. Imagine yourselves as proxies for a public that will be affected by taxes, investments, policy changes, etc.)
“The more reporters emphasize ‘how this will play,’ the more likely most Americans are to think ‘it’s all just a show.'”
“Stop getting sucked into culture war soundbites that are simply meant to inflame and get coverage,” says Lipman.
“Ignore incendiary assertions of cultural bigotry with no clear policy significance, recognizing that coverage rarely weakens support for malefactors,” says Wasserman.
And don’t give Trump so much attention. History professor and Letters from an American newsletter author Heather Cox Richardson writes: “It is astonishing how fully the Trump circus continues to absorb oxygen in the midst of the most consequential administration since at least Reagan. The press certain doesn’t have to cheerlead for the administration, but it should make clear the extent of the changes it’s overseeing.”
The Missing Voter Interviews
Richardson ponders: “We are still getting endless stories about the Republican voter. But who are the Democratic voters? What do they want? They are, after all, a majority.”
“Recognize that you can *always* find extremists who will say inflammatory things,” writes Fallows. “That’s become the ‘dog bites man’ story — so familiar and cliched it is of no use. Look also — not exclusively, but also — for ‘man bites dog,’ in the form of citizens and officials trying to find a reasonable path forward.”
Sewell Chan, editor of the Texas Tribune, urges reporters to engage in “deeper dive interviews with voters, that don’t start from ‘who are you supporting’ but rather from ‘what are you directly experiencing in your life, and how does that connect to what you want/don’t want from government?'”
Reporters should “actually spend time understanding the experiences, challenges, tradeoffs and dilemmas” that voters face, Chan writes.
(I agree, and have some exciting news forthcoming about a plan to do just that.)
Legendary journalist and documentarian Hedrick Smith wants newsrooms to focus on Republicans who want to put Trump behind them.
“Dig into the 49 percent of GOP primary voters who are NOT for Trump. Who are they? Where do they stand on key issues like immigration, the economy, racial discrimination, limits on tech, and the future of Republican Party?”
Similarly, Smith writes: “Do serious interviews with Republican presidential candidates running against Trump. They know the numbers as well as you do. So why are they running?… Are they worried about where GOP is headed? Do they want real issues debated? Are they expecting a crack in Trump supporters? Why do they think it’s not as hopeless as the media says it is?”
Everything is Different Now
Dan Gillmor, who teaches journalism at Arizona State University, advises: “Recognize that this is an emergency, and adjust coverage accordingly. “Democracy, and by extension freedom of the press, are on the ballot next year, but journalism is still doing business as usual. It is long, long past due to take an activist stance on behalf of democracy. The people who want to end it — and who have made clear they will do so if put (back) into power — count on journalists’ adherence to norms that were appropriate in the late 20th century. ”
Pickard adds: “Journalists should keep a laser-like focus on how one party has, in so many ways, given up even pretending to care about the integrity of our fragile democracy and whether democratic governance is an ideal worth protecting. In particular, coverage of Trump should remind us all to what extent he attempted to subvert the 2020 election, and that he continues to do great damage to our political processes.”
“Recognize the malignant uniqueness of the current political moment,” writes Charles Pierce, politics columnist for Esquire. That includes acknowledging how we got here: “Recognize that this moment is the result of 40 years of conservative politics, and that DJT is a symptom, not a cause,” Pierce writes.
Rosen recommends: “The reporting and analysis of politics could become more explicitly (and creatively) pro-democracy, pro-voting, and pro-truth. These have always been background assumptions of strong public service journalism. Now they need to be brought into the foreground as major and timely commitments, as basic as ‘democracy dies in darkness.’ Then it’s up to journalists to work out the consequences of those commitments for their own practices.”
In particular, he suggests: “Newsrooms local, statewide, and national could develop through their own research a ranking of ‘live threats to democracy in our coverage area,’ which they then use to generate assignments, level with their audience, and sound the alarm when needed.”
Call Out Misinformation
It’s not enough to call out a lie. It’s a disservice to the public if you don’t explain its purpose. I wrote about that in my column “The ‘why’ behind the lie“.
Ben-Ghiat writes: “Speak to experts on disinformation/information warfare and authoritarianism to understand the media strategies of Trump, GOP and enablers. Do not just report the what always include in the headline the why: the infowar strategy behind their words.”
And don’t leave out what is arguably the greatest spreader of misinformation: “Call out Fox ‘News’ for what it is: a propaganda mill for the Republican Party,” advises Gillmor.
Journalism itself is under attack. That’s a big story.
“We don’t talk about the threats journalists face until there is a raid or a shooting,” Ben-Ghiat writes. “Helping the public understand how difficult it is for journalists to do their jobs due to the climate of hostility engendered by the enemies of the truth is important. In countries where democracy has fallen, such as the Philippines, journalists who fight for the truth or cover corruption are national heroes.”
“Don’t contribute to undermining your own legitimacy,” advises Mercieca.
Keep the Trials and the Campaign Separate
“The candidate is a defendant and the defendant is a candidate. Barring an act of god, or the sudden intervention of his coronary arteries, that is going to be the case throughout the 2024 cycle, and it is going to require a massive course correct in the election coverage,” Pierce writes.
“No story about the legal side should make heavy reference to the political consequences as regards the presidential race. Campaign polling should have no relevance to reports from the courtroom. If the indictments improve his standing in the election, that should be taken as evidence of a deeper failure of the entire system, not as a curious, quaint phenomenon described in anodyne terms.”
Follow the Money
Political journalists spend a lot of time reporting on how much money the candidates have raised. But they don’t look hard enough at where it comes from, and they don’t connect the candidates to the donors who fund them, even though that can be incredibly telling.
Investigative reporter and author David Cay Johnston writes: “Policy, the character of candidates, and their financial backers are all interrelated, and they need to be presented in ways that don’t bore readers, but are telling about who candidates really are, and what they are highly likely to do an office.”
Pickard calls for journalists to “Discuss the obscene amounts of money being spent on campaigns, especially on political advertising, where this money is coming from, and how much of an extreme outlier the U.S. political election process is compared to other democracies across the planet.”
Jeff Cohen, the founder of FAIR and a retired journalism professor, recommends: “Focus less on the amount of campaign funding to each candidate, and more on where funding is coming from, and what interests funders have in government policy.”
He adds: “Right-wing candidates like DeSantis regularly make populist-sounding appeals to the ‘working class’ (seemingly aimed at the ‘white working class’) and attack ‘corporate media,’ but they are funded heavily by powerful and exploitative corporate interests. Journalists need to expose the identities and policy interests of these big GOP funders.
“Similarly, Democrats like Biden regularly invoke ‘working families,’ but are heavily funded by executives (or lawyer/lobbyist/consultants) from big finance, big tech, big real estate, big healthcare, etc. — and journalists need to expose their identities and interests. ”
And journalists should acknowledge that money affects how they do their job as well.
Writes Pickard: “I think we should always be asking what the structural conditions are that encourage status quo media coverage, and we need to consider how we can change those conditions to encourage better journalism. Political journalism, especially during campaign seasons, is big money. And these financial incentives warp our news media.”
Finally, Mike Luckovich, editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has a suggestion clearly pointed at the Washington Post opinion section, whose downgrading of political cartoons you can read about here.
“As a cartoonist,” Luckovich writes, “I think in this moment, when our democracy is at stake, that newspapers should run hard-hitting cartoons that hit Trump, Republican and Fox News lies, rather than New Yorker type gag cartoons.”
Also read Will Bunch in the Philadelphia Inquirer on how the U.S. media is doing a terrible job explaining what is actually happening, and Margaret Sullivan in the Guardian on how the media hasn’t learned much since 2015.