As election day approaches in the US, journalists around the world are working in the most challenging environment of their lifetimes. This will be no ordinary election, not only because COVID-19 has changed the way Americans vote, with 45 million ballots already cast by mail, but also because the US president, Donald Trump, has repeatedly challenged the validity of the vote and declined to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses.
While his Republican party prepares blanket legal challenges anticipating an election loss, a bitter political battle is brewing in the Supreme Court, the country’s highest legal institution, which played a key role in adjudicating the 2000 election.
All of which means that how journalists cover the run-up and, especially, the aftermath of the election will be crucial for American democracy – and the ideal of democracy around the world. What we demand of journalists, and what news we decide to read and share, will be essential as well. Both the press and the public must answer hard questions: how to discuss controversies around the vote and what to do if the result is unclear, or a candidate does not concede? And what if civil unrest ensues after the vote?
Thankfully, decades of research and expertise can help guide decisions in these unprecedented times.
British media are very popular and influential in the US and they can play an important role in shaping how the American public will interpret the election and its aftermath. The BBC could well play a big role. Research has shown that 58% of Americans say they trust the broadcaster and 12% get at least some of their news from it each week.
UK newspapers also have the potential to be influential players: in March 2020 the Guardian US recorded more than 114 million unique visits while the Daily Mail online attracts an estimated 73 million monthly unique visits in the US. Meanwhile, most readers of The Economist are in North America. And the influence won’t stop there – given their international prestige and recognition, British media are likely to shape news coverage of the US election all around the world.
Democracy at stake
Whether the 2020 elections strengthen or weaken American democracy is not only crucial for the US, but for the cause of democracy. With all its quirks and flaws, America is still the world’s leading and most powerful democracy, but its institutions are under strain. For instance, the Economist Intelligence Unit now classifies the US as a “flawed democracy. If American democracy falters, the ideal of democracy will suffer elsewhere in the world – not least in the UK.
We are already seeing issues with UK reporting of the US election. The press is extensively covering statements that are largely unfounded but challenge the legitimacy of the election, such as Trump’s denunciation of mail-in ballots. To be fair, this reporting often (though not always) includes disclaimers and fact-checks, but research shows that false statements that are repeated often can be seen as truthful by audiences.
Journalists tend to consider conflict as newsworthy, and therefore are keen to cover even the wildest allegations that a party throws against the other – and the electoral process itself. Yet, this means airing baseless accusations that weaken democratic legitimacy. News that depicts democracy as a no-holds-barred competition for power increases cynicism and reduces political knowledge among citizens. To protect the integrity of the electoral process, journalists should instead adopt a ”democracy-worthy“ frame.
Making democracy central to news coverage also requires understanding and preparing for the likely legal battles that lie ahead. The mechanisms of a US presidential election are by and large defined at the state rather than the federal level (remember the "hanging chads” battle in Florida in 2000?) Journalists need to develop knowledge about and credible sources on state electoral regulation – particularly for states where the vote is likely to be close. If coverage of these legal battles turns into a litany of complaints from partisan lawyers, democracy will lose out.
Readers and viewers have important roles to play as well. More than three-quarters of the UK population get their news online and nearly 40% on social media. The news that people choose to read on websites and news apps shapes the rankings that journalists and news executives use as indicators of what the public wants. The news they choose to share on social media influences the content that others discover on these platforms.
What can be done?
In response to these challenges, the Election Coverage and Democracy Network brings together over 60 experts from around the world to help newsrooms cover this election with evidence-based best practices that uphold journalistic and democratic values and address the needs of the audience.
The recommendations focus on three areas.
1. During the campaign, we recommend that journalists deny a platform to anyone making unfounded claims while putting voters and election administrators at the centre. They should strive for equity in news coverage and make quality coverage more widely accessible, by temporarily bringing down paywalls for it.
2. In case of a contested election, we recommend that journalists publicise their plans for how they will cover results and avoid making premature declarations on who won. They should develop and use state and local-level expertise to provide locally relevant information on electoral rules and distinguish between legitimate, evidence-based challenges to vote counts and illegitimate ones that are intended to delay or call into question accepted procedures.
They must avoid using social media as substitutes for institutionally credible and reliable election information, while recognising that technology platforms have an important role to play. Importantly, they should embrace existing democratic institutions, by explaining how elections work and emphasising that the increased availability of mail-in ballots is an effective response to the COVID crisis.
3. In the eventuality of civil unrest, we recommend that journalists help their audiences understand the roots of unrest by explaining the sources of social and political divisions in the country. They must also uphold democratic norms that prescribe that the candidate who gains most Electoral College votes is elected president, that the loser should promptly concede, and that all citizens have the right to speak, write and assemble peacefully.
Journalists must use clear definitions for actions and actors (for instance, distinguishing between paramilitary groups and citizen protesters) and deny a platform to those who call for violence, spread disinformation, or foment racist ideas.
There are many excellent examples of “democracy-worthy” news coverage of the US election, as we highlight via our Twitter account. If UK journalists take notice – and their readers reward these best practices, more are likely to follow.
American democracy, and the ideal of democracy itself, are at stake in 2020. Journalists and readers must rise to the task – it’s that important.