Art by Claire Merchlinsky

Let’s Try This Again

We’ve learned a lot from past elections about disinformation, social platforms, and voter suppression. Journalists have work to do.

This year’s presidential rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump comes with the same threats to democracy—disinformation campaigns, unreliable social platforms, voter suppression—that have befogged the political press for nearly a decade. Facing another round, we spoke to fifteen journalists and media analysts with expertise in election coverage about how to improve our form. Many felt that we’re in better shape than we were in 2016, but that we still have work to do. “We’re still talking about analog problems in a digital world—and that’s a bad thing,” Charlie Sykes—a cofounder of The Bulwark, a conservative anti-Trump site—said. Fully reckoning with the ability of artificial intelligence to “supercharge disinformation” is crucial, according to Adrian Shahbaz, the vice president of research at a think tank called Freedom House. Kate Starbird, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, suggested that we reorient our relationship to disinformation—“put a label on it later,” she said—and describe anything unverified as “rumor.” Natalia Antelava—the editor in chief of Coda Story, which produces journalism about the origins of global crises—advised that the press scrutinize its “algorithmic dependency on platforms.” For many editors, that means getting offline and into the ring. We’ve edited their comments for clarity and length. —Feven Merid

David Ajikobi
Nigeria editor at Africa Check, a nonprofit fact-checking organization

When we covered Nigeria’s presidential election last year, we not only depended on fact-checking, but also media literacy and what we call prebunking: educating the public about the political process, the manifestos and what politicians are promising them. It is one thing to fact-check a claim; it’s another to give people the skills to be able to do that on their own. I think that is where the future is. Prebunking is addressing something that you know will lend itself to some sort of misinformation or disinformation. 

We deployed an AI tool for election-related disinformation, which we developed with funding from Google. You could put a candidate’s name in the tool, and it scrapes the internet for speeches they have made and helps identify claims in those speeches. We then attach a fact-check to those claims, such that wherever they are published again online, it automatically picks up and adds your fact-check to the claim—similar to the contextual notes we now see on X.

Connect with your audience
Donna Ladd
Editor and CEO of Mississippi Free Press

If you don’t actually understand what people are thinking about and talking about on the ground—and especially the people who are not wealthy white men, who are at the highest risk of being hurt by dangerous political decisions and then by bad political reporting—then everything is skewed from the outset. 

The American Press Institute and the Knight Foundation are helping us start to do this series of local forums that we call “solution circles” across the state. We are getting out and having public dialogues where the people decide what they’re going to talk about. One of the circles, in Biloxi, had people expressing frustration about local elections and how the media is not giving them what they need. What they told us is that they show up to local elections and they don’t know many of the names on the ballot, because there’s nobody putting that information out in any kind of effective way. So many of their local publications that were doing some of these things have basically shuttered. 

For us, it’s about having an inclusive audience and an inclusive staff. We can’t just send out a bunch of white male political reporters who can’t connect. Our team of nine people in Biloxi was mostly Black, and there was an Indigenous man there with us helping lead the circles. Mississippi is the Blackest state—and our journalism here has never fully represented all Mississippians. You have to be inclusive to develop trust. It’s really important locally. You’ve got to do that and not let your own assumptions drive how you are approaching election coverage.

Think in terms of ‘rumor’
Kate Starbird
Director of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, focused on rumors about election administration

The study of rumor began to coalesce as a field around the 1940s, and so we have a long history to draw from. We moved to using the term “rumor” because there’s actually a lot of uncertainty around unofficial information traveling through informal channels. Many rumors turn out to be false, but some turn out to be true—and actually, I would say, many turn out to be somewhere in between. We can put a label on it later, but in the moment, using the term “rumor” allows you to orient differently around information. And also rumors, even when they turn out to be false, can be a signal, especially for public communicators and election officials, for what people are worried about. There can be a dialogue: Okay, let’s understand what you’re worried about, and then we can provide information. It’s a more empathetic approach and can provide opportunity for a healthier discourse.

In 2020, we saw local media articles that were just covering the election in a straight-news way get picked up by partisan media outlets that would then rip out the context. I’m maybe a little bit too hopeful here, but I think there’s a role for those local media outlets to play in understanding that their coverage becomes raw material for false narratives. Local media can be thinking about how they frame their headlines and their ledes, knowing what’s going to get picked up. They’re incentivized to put that exciting headline and that lede up. Yet that is what feeds into the misperceptions and the mischaracterizations of election integrity.

Show your audience that platforms are grifts and scams
Brett Neely
Supervising editor, Disinformation Reporting team at NPR

A lot of this is about money. All of these platforms pushing disinformation—purported news outlets that spread lies—are grifts and scams in a way. And I think that one of the ways that journalists can reach people is to help them understand the ways in which they are the products, that their beliefs and emotions are being manipulated and monetized. That is the best way in.

Get technical
Jamie Raskin
Congressman from Maryland who has been outspoken on election integrity

Focus on the technical, technological, and bureaucratic infrastructure of elections. And the legal specifications. Look at voter suppression historically. When Black people finally got the right to vote, people seeking to suppress the vote of course came up with things like literacy tests, poll tax rates, grandfather clauses—those were the blatant ploys. But then, in a lot of states, you had to fill out a five-page form, with no mistakes, including address, ward, precinct, county, phone number—that kind of stuff. The press generally would say, Oh, the election is on November 5, and then they cover that, and they’re not covering everything that defines the electorate, screens out voters, and determines who is actually going to be making the decisions. 

Georgia would be a great case study. It’s going to be a swing state. It’s got two Democratic senators, and they’ve been more Republican in the presidential elections. There are just a raft of new election rules. It makes it very difficult, obviously, to vote, but the other part is that it makes it very easy to challenge people’s votes. When it comes to disenfranchisement and voter suppression, there is nothing new under the sun. These techniques have been refined over the decades.

One of the reasons that Donald Trump is constantly denouncing vote-by-mail, despite the fact that he and his cabinet and his family use it, is that it’s actually much less subject to disenfranchisement and voter suppression tactics. Also, they denounced it because it has created a much broader and more active electorate. People love just being able to get their ballot at home, fill it out, and send it in.

Resist the temptation to speculate
Caitlin Huey-Burns
Political correspondent for CBS News

Without the audience trusting us, it all falls apart. As I’m approaching my reporting, I’m just very careful. Anything I say or put out on social media—I never want to speculate. For example, a lot of times we’re discussing what the potential political fallout of something is. And I just always draw back to my reporting and conversations with either sources or voters. I think it’s more important than ever to be conscious of what we’re putting out there—I’m always thinking of whether and how something could be misconstrued. I think the more that we can show our work, that helps people understand what we’re doing.

Don’t put ‘misinformation’ in a box
Andrew Marantz
Staff writer at The New Yorker

To be fair to the press, I think they’re in a bit of a bind because whenever they start coalescing around something, they get outflanked by someone like Trump, who’s a better and more nimble propagandist. When misinformation reporters started talking about fake news, Trump just flipped it and used it as a cudgel against them. And then it was not only not useful, but certainly counterproductive. And the same thing keeps happening. It happened with “ultra MAGA.” It happened with “woke.” You can just keep going down the line. I think sometimes it’s useful if somebody is passing around a rumor that you know is not true—but on the whole, misinformation or disinformation is too tangled a category to be completely useful. 

It’s always hard to know with the media, what’s the chicken and what’s the egg? Is the news bad or is the news making the world seem bad? Do we cover Trump more, do we cover Trump less? Do we let people know that he’s a charlatan? Do we not give him oxygen? I don’t think the media can really solve that problem. They can just do a relatively bad or less bad job at covering it. But I don’t think there’s a good version where the media saves democracy from Trump.

Learn from the rest of the world
Maria Hinojosa
Founder of Futuro Media

I think that American journalists have a very pristine view of our democracy. They still continue to believe that there’s a certain kind of way that democracy works, certain ethics that are still operable. The coverage of January 6, for example—if that was covered anyplace else in the world, it would have been called an attempted coup d’état. I used the term “coup d’état” because I grew up watching that happen: September 11, 1973, when there was a coup d’état in Chile that was, in part, orchestrated by the United States. How did the mainstream American media cover it?

Though the Trump administration was borderline authoritarian and borderline fascist, mainstream media still cannot call it that, because they haven’t studied that history. If I were the editor in chief of all newsrooms, I would have been holding seminars with journalists in countries where they’ve had to practice under authoritarian regimes, like in Chile, in Mexico. How do journalists function, understanding that they too can be manipulated and abused?

Focus more on the real world, less on Twitter
James Bennet
Lexington columnist, The Economist

For one very big and terrible reason, the media is as unprepared for 2024 as it’s been in a long time. And the reason is the horrible wipeout of local journalism in this country. The contribution that has made to the nationalization of our politics and to partisanship is impossible to measure.

We spend a lot of time now covering what’s happening in the online world. It’s not irrelevant, but I’m not sure we’ve really reckoned with how that is changing what we think news is and how it’s affected our politics. Part of it is, like, behavior on Twitter, which is something we write about a lot. Donald Trump is obviously the master at using social media to create news and then dominate the media and the national consciousness. And I don’t think we’ve figured out how to cover that stuff in a way that actually is proportional to its meaning in the real world and its meaning to voters. 

We spend less time out in the real world talking to people, and I don’t think it serves readers very well. I think getting out into the country and conveying a very complex reality to our audiences is the most important element of a reporter’s role.

Opinion journalists have a very similar responsibility, which prioritizes intellectual honesty and questioning your own assumptions. In an opinion writer’s case, that means not arguing against a straw man but really engaging the most serious arguments on the other side, and being open to hearing them. Not just being open—but embracing the opportunity to hear them. It’s hard work, you know? It’s uncomfortable work for everybody. It’s supposed to be. But I do think it’s profoundly rewarding.

Don’t play disinformation Whac-A-Mole
Natalia Antelava
Editor in chief, Coda Story

The media industry has treated disinformation in a very reactive way. Debunking individual pieces of fake news is very reactive and in some ways counterproductive. Often it just adds to the noise, and noise is the real problem of our information ecosystem. Noise is the new censorship that mutes voices that need to be heard. The very idea of a twenty-four-hour news cycle that cable television created—and then the internet reinforced, by turning itself into this bottomless pit for updates—that idea is bullshit. There isn’t enough news to fill the twenty-four-hour cycle.

At Coda, the way we cover disinformation is really by looking at the root causes of it, things that are giving birth to myths, the players who are behind stories. For example, even before the pandemic hit, we did loads of stories on anti-vaxxer movements, on health surveillance, and on things undermining the scientific process, quite niche things that became very mainstream when COVID happened. People will believe what they want to believe, so I think you need to catch people earlier.

Keep laying out the facts
April Ryan
Washington, DC, bureau chief for TheGrio

I think audiences now are cynical. They’ve made their decisions on what’s what. And I think we’ve oversaturated some of the candidates. It may have turned some off to think that we are against or for someone. I think in some instances it may be too late to correct some of the missteps that we’ve made—I’m talking about media as a whole—because a lot of people are very upset. They remember that we’ve allowed candidates to pontificate and say what they want without checking them.

People are so over this whole thing. You’re watching so many people talk about how they’re uncommitted because of what’s going on or what they see. And for us, the onus is to tell the truth, not lean on one side or the other. We have to lay down the facts as accurately as we can.

Put plans in place
Adrian Shahbaz
Vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House

Over 40 percent of the world’s population is set to vote in national elections in 2024. Many democracies are still struggling to effectively respond to mis- and disinformation while upholding the rights of free expression and access to information. And I think this challenge is particularly important given how generative AI has the potential to supercharge disinformation. How media outlets cover those incidents is highly impactful. We need a whole-of-society approach to mitigating the impact of disinformation, particularly around elections.  

There are two specific tactics that come to mind that I think can help around what the media can do. One of these is internal: newsrooms developing a plan of action for evaluating possible examples of election-related media manipulation. That could include partnerships with technical experts, and a rapid-response protocol for dealing with a threat—how do you cover it without helping spread the misleading message? The second tactic is external and relates to pre-election messaging campaigns that could inform viewers and readers about the potential for media manipulation. That can be explainers about what is generative AI, what are the ways that it can be used, who are the different actors who could be manipulating information? How are they doing it? What is the impact?

Include Latino voices
Jean Guerrero
Journalist and former opinion columnist at the Los Angeles Times

I think that we’re in many ways extremely underprepared for the election, and a big part of that is the severe underrepresentation of Latinos in the media. And the fact that a majority of the disinformation and misinformation in this election cycle is going to revolve around the scapegoating of our communities, particularly our immigrant communities. Anti-immigrant scapegoating is the main weapon of Trump and his allies. We don’t have enough Latino voices in newsrooms right now who can tell our stories with the kind of nuance that is required to combat that level of scapegoating. 

What allows the Republican Party’s misinformation about immigration to really take root is the fact that you don’t see the stories about undocumented families and mixed-status families within the United States and the particular issues that they face, the way that they’re essential to our economy, the fact that they are complicated human beings just like everybody else. A lot of the narratives around immigrants are often very simplistic and reduce people to caricatures. When you’re talking about Latinos specifically in the media, we’re either bad hombres or we’re superhuman immigrants who work harder than everyone else—or we’re the MAGA Latino. We’re talked about in these stereotypes that just incline people to see us as a population that should be exploited or excluded systematically.

Avoid outrage fatigue
Charlie Sykes
Cofounder of The Bulwark

The media is still focused on news-as-novelty: what is news as opposed to writing about what the stakes are. But there’s been a fundamental category shift, and it is a genuine crisis. How do you raise the alarm without being the person who always cries, “The end of democracy”? Because at a certain point, people shrug their shoulders and they go, “Okay, fine.” The boredom with the political year, the disillusionment, the sense of disconnect—I think people have become exhausted and numbed by the outrage. And yet somehow they have to understand what the stakes are of the outrages to come.

Inform people of their options—and let them make up their own minds
Chauncey Alcorn
State and local politics reporter, Capital B Atlanta

I think the big concern right now for Capital B, as a news nonprofit that centers Black voices in our coverage, is the lack of information about the voting process. We had a very consequential federal court case in Georgia over political maps that were redrawn. Some members of the state senate here, their districts were redrawn and their Black votes were diluted. In Georgia, for the last four years, we’ve had issues with the Election Integrity Act: early-voting hours being reduced, folks being kicked off the rolls.

There’s also a lot of concern about Gaza. A lot of young Black folks here in Georgia said that they don’t feel like they have a place to go vote: they don’t want to support President Trump, nor can they support President Biden, because the US government under his leadership is sending military aid to Israel to execute what many are describing as a genocide. For some of these older folks that have been around since the civil rights movement, voting has always been a situation of the lesser of two evils. They’ve never had any misconceptions about that, and they say that for them, they view Trump as a threat to democracy. 

All of these things are contributing to voter apathy—and relate to misinformation and attempts to try to suppress Black votes. We as a newsroom are trying to make sure that Black people are fully informed about their options and the best possible way to get the whole voting process right. We have done a lot of coverage on getting registered and where to go to vote. We’re also focusing on stories that address local issues, because maybe people don’t want to vote for either presidential candidate, but they can still be informed on voting for county commissioner or city council member, state representative, state senator. And that may have much more of an impact on someone’s life.

Yona TR Golding, Kevin Lind, and Ayodeji Rotinwa are CJR fellows.