Any journalist will tell you: report the story, but don’t be a part of it. But, without a concerted effort to avoid “business as usual” on November 3rd, American journalism will be one of the most consequential characters in the story of the 2020 Election. In this election, the horserace has been weaponized.
Elections equal horse races to the media. Even if “decision desks”—the set of people who help “call” elections—have proclaimed their patience, their news desks and opinion desks, and the companies that own them, may not be so patient. For business, the more drama, the more viewers, readers, and/or likes, the better. But, the 2020 election is highly unlikely to be decided on Election Night itself.
When drama-hungry media howl for a winner on Election Night and/or dramatically cover a horserace, instead of a democracy, in the days, or weeks, after November 3rd, it will create a needless sense of urgency that those willing to subvert democratic institutions are counting on. For instance, an important justification for Supreme Court intervention in the election could come from pretending that the American people can’t wait for our votes to be counted, even while so many people (disproportionately people of color) are willing to wait for hours to vote in hopes they will be counted. A key way to legitimize state governments casting aside ballots and deciding on their own electors is to cite the media’s rush as an indicator that voters lack patience.
To be sure, we are not claiming that situation we are in is the result of the media. We are in an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that was set in motion years ago, and everyone looks on amazed and surprised while the pieces continue to fall as researchers anticipated. But, the media’s part in this Goldberg machine is critical for the machine reaching its conclusion in a failed democracy. All that has to happen for the media to play Victor Frankenstein to our democracy on election night is for journalists and reporters to ignore the warning signs and continue with a horserace as usual, ignoring its weaponization.
What can the media do to avoid this and how can social movements help? The media-related steps are easy to identify but require significant discipline.
Step 1: The media must practice patience. Media broadly—decision desks, news desks, and opinion desks—need to commit now to practices that will facilitate patience on election night and afterwards. The decision desk’s patience must not be undermined: having one part of your organization committed to patience and the rest fanning the flames of impatience is making your media organization very much part of the story. Committing to patience isn’t going to get easier as we get closer to Election Day. The likelihood that media that don’t commit to organization-wide patience before Election Day will embrace patience afterwards is vanishingly small.
Step 2. Media should follow evidence-based guides on reporting like these from the Election Coverage and Democracy Network. Practices like “distinguish[ing] between legitimate, evidence-based challenges to vote counts and illegitimate ones that are intended to delay or call into question accepted procedures” and “don’t use social media to fill gaps in institutionally credible and reliable election information” are critical to maintaining patience and to starving the fire that may well burn on Election night, threatening to engulf our democracy.
Step 3. The media can use their reporting to help communities “Hold the Line” on defending democracy. Social movements are already trying to address key concerns about the Election. For instance, organizers are already working to preserve our democracy by protecting three basic principles: all votes must be counted; allegations of voter suppression and election irregularities must be impartially investigated and redressed; and the final result must be peacefully respected. Not only do we need media to refuse to spread chaos, we need prior reporting that helps their audience understand local voting practices and protections and evaluate how well their community is doing at ensuring that all voters are able to freely vote and have their votes counted.
Is the media up to the test? On the one hand, the willingness of journalists to be assaulted to tell the story of protests this summer says yes. But, on the other hand, media have been unwittingly weaponized before, delivering Trump $2 billion dollars in free media coverage, 2.5 times more than Clinton in 2016. Social movement organizers around the country are working right now to encourage the media, and other key actors, to ensure the integrity of the American election. In the days that follow it, it is possible that non-violent collective action will be necessary to have Election results fairly counted and/or honored. Movements need to remember during the weeks surrounding the Election that they may achieve their short-term election goals by encouraging the media to follow the steps above.
We will find out over the next 2-3 weeks whether journalists are going to be the story, pretending that normal practices in abnormal times are neutral. We hope the media will indeed rise to serve as the Fourth Estate.
Note: The opinions represented in this piece are our own views and do not represent the views or positions of our institutions or organizations.