Journalism’s obligation to democracy extends beyond the runoffs

Yesterday, Georgia voters returned to the polls to decide which candidates would represent the state in the US Senate—and, by extension, which party would control Congress for the next two years. Early this morning, national outlets declared Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, the winner of his race against Kelly Loeffler, a Republican; as of now, the race between Democratic challenger Jon Ossof and Republican incumbent David Perdue remains too close to call. Today, Congress and the Vice President will meet in order to formalize Joe Biden’s election to the presidency—ending, one hopes, a two-day span that includes some of the nation’s most significant democratic operations as well some of the most brazen efforts to undermine them. 

The events of the past week are only our most recent reminder that democracy is not inevitable, and the press plays an enormous role in the continuing fight toward its full realization. Journalism’s role in the Georgia runoff began long before yesterday; faced in November with the inevitability of a January runoff, the press responded with a barrage of service journalism— explainers on the mechanisms and origins of Georgia’s runoff, information on Georgia voter registration—as well as drawing attention to the stakes. Yesterday, local front pages throughout Georgia emphasized the national importance of the election; reminded readers of voting hours; noted, in select cases, lower numbers of early ballots than reported in November; or offered voting guides to help voters navigate the process. 

The availability and volume of good information is critical to any election. However, as recent years have made distressingly clear, the availability and volume of disinformation is also extremely powerful. Efforts to undermine democracy’s function have been rampant, particularly (though not exclusively) during the past several months. On top of the disinformation targeting individual voters in Georgia, the president and other Republican officials leveraged the power of a fragmenting information system to amass support for baseless claims of fraudulent election results, tethering the election in Georgia to the foundations of a parallel universe in which the president had been maligned. Last weekend, reporters revealed—to Georgia and to the nation—that President Trump had pressured Georgia’s Secretary of State to overturn Biden’s November win in the state, and linked his claims to conspiracy-riddled websites. Yesterday, outlets reported the president’s efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the November election results in Congress—a power the Vice President does not actually possess. That news likely reached some Georgia voters even as they headed to the polls; its impact is felt as Congress gathers today. 

The press cannot take for granted that American democracy is unbreakable, nor can it assume that unencumbered participation in democratic institutions has ever been the country’s status quo. Runoffs in Georgia have roots in voter suppression aimed at Black voting blocs, as  numerous outlets have detailed; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a particularly deep dive into the runoff election’s history, including an unsuccessful 1988 lawsuit, brought by former state Representative Tyrone Brooks, which “alleged the system violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by diluting Black voting strength.”

Though the conclusion of the Georgia runoff and the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency are both near at hand, the events surrounding both events are sobering reminders that democracy—the idea itself, as well as the mechanisms that enact it—is an ongoing effort. Journalists’ work to ensure that effort—to reveal the flaws and failings and threats, both overt and less apparent, that jeopardize it—is never done. 

Below, more on the Georgia elections and the end of the Trump era:

  • A few weeks before yesterday’s runoff election, Facebook turned off a ban on political ads in Georgia. Drawing on data from 58 Facebook users in Georgia, The Markup reported a marked shift toward more partisan news feeds. “For the first half of the month, the most commonly appearing election-related content came primarily from news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” wrote Corin Faife. Once Facebook enabled political ads, however, “just over one third of the most commonly appearing domains were partisan campaign sites buying ads, including WrongForGeorgia.com, an attack site targeting the Democratic candidates; and DeserveBetter.org, an attack site targeting the incumbent Republican senators.”
  • Hamilton Nolan, CJR’s public editor for the Washington Post, considers that outlet’s performance over the past four years and its path forward at a time when significant numbers of American voters have no confidence in its reporting. “News outlets can deliver accurate information to the public,” Nolan writes. “They cannot grab the public by the throat and shake it out of a misguided belief in politically motivated lies.” Though the answer might be “corny, pat, and unexciting,” Nolan writes, the best response to animosity and polarizing fragmentation may be for the press to simply keep doing its job.
  • For New York magazine, Olivia Nuzzi wrote about the unusual bond shared by reporters in the White House Press Corps who weathered the strange and challenging circumstances of the Trump administration. “The process was essentially more democratic than ever before, since leaks came from everywhere and came to anyone skilled or lucky enough to find them, their status in the news hierarchy often secondary to their ability to actually understand how the place operated,” Nuzzi wrote.

Other notable stories:

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites