Politics and Democracy: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated September 2022
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on politics and democracy published in our weekly newsletter, Freeze Frame. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.
Language & Word Choice
January 6, 2022
What is the most accurate and fair way to describe the events of January 6, 2021?
Of the many words news organizations have used to describe that day — like “riot,” “revolt,” “mob,” “attack,” “violence,” etc. — one of the few that consistently describes the intent of the crowd at the Capitol is “insurrection.” While terms like “riot” or “attack on the Capitol” may not be inaccurate, they don’t tell the whole story of why there was such an attack: to disrupt or overthrow the government.
To that end, the actions of politicians and figures who planned or encouraged the insurrection in order to remain in power despite the will of the people can accurately be described as a “coup attempt.” As evidence has shown, one of the goals of the insurrection was to illegally keep President Trump in power despite the true results of the 2020 election, and that, plain and simple, is the definition of a coup. Just because it was unsuccessful does not mean we should obfuscate that goal for audiences.
January 27, 2022
How can reporting on book banning serve audiences best?
As with the debate over “critical race theory” in schools (which is continually used as a euphemism for teaching about race at all), news about book bans requires both the context of where they’re coming from and the subtext of what they’re really about. For instance, campaigns from conservative U.S. advocacy groups are often behind school book bans and the banning of a graphic novel about the Holocaust is about much more than the nudity of cartoon mice. It’s crucial that reporters help audiences understand the greater ramifications of trends that seek to erase the teaching of history from schools, rather than focus on disingenuous or superficial arguments for such decisions.
March 10, 2022
What does “culture war” mean? How can journalists use it accurately when reporting on topics of increased public debate?
“Culture war” is a phrase popularized by sociologist James Davison Hunter some 30 years ago to describe conflict over culture — our values, beliefs, and how we live — playing out in the political sphere. Issues recently given the “culture war” label by news media include laws that target parents of trans children for prosecution, barring LGBTQ and racial injustice education for children, abortion rights, and COVID-19 mitigation.
Defining these as issues of “culture” is misleading. Conflict over such issues is not debate for debate’s sake. Erasing racism and queer communities from our education system is a step toward erasing people of color and LGBTQ people from existence. Eliminating gender-affirming healthcare for kids is a step toward erasing trans adults. Barring access to abortion is a step toward controlling women’s bodies and lives. Banning measures that diffuse the effects of a deadly pandemic costs lives. These issues aren’t about “values” or “how we live,” they’re about who gets to live.
Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term “culture wars” dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose “values” are enshrined into law. Journalists should avoid using this shorthand and apply the language of human rights and their violations when the issue is life and death for the “loser” of said war.
March 31, 2022
What is the controversy over using the term “gaffe” to describe remarks by newsworthy figures?
In March 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden made an unscripted remark at the end of a prepared speech (“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” re: Vladimir Putin) that many reporters later referred to as a “gaffe.” But, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop has since duly noted, gaffes by public figures are often unduly focused on by the press due to an insider-y obsession with proper messaging.
The definition of “gaffe” is a foolish or embarrassing mistake or blunder. The label is often applied quite unevenly by the media depending on the public figure. Despite a plethora of outrageous remarks that left his mouth while in office and since, Donald Trump’s biggest “gaffes” were usually framed as normal or honest comments by the former president. Is that because such remarks hardly embarrassed Trump and often even resulted in buoyed support from his biggest fans? Perhaps.
Regardless, the use of the term relies on assumptions about the political implications and intent of a statement, rather than the content of the statement itself. If a mistake is of true consequence, it would not be simply a “gaffe” at all. And if it is just a “gaffe,” perhaps it doesn’t require as much attention as political reporters think.
June 9, 2022
Some recent legislative decisions on issues important to the U.S. population have gone against what polling says the majority actually want (think: gun control, domestic terrorism, and abortion). If journalism is to serve as the pillar of democracy it believes itself to be, it should frame this progression as anti-democratic. Below are a few examples of polling and opinion research that could be cited in reporting on relevant legislation.
- Where Americans Stand On Abortion, in 5 Charts (Vox)
- Just How Far Apart Are The Two Parties On Gun Control? (FiveThirtyEight)
- New poll shows Americans overwhelmingly oppose anti-transgender laws (PBS)
- By a wide margin, Americans view inflation as the top problem facing the country today (Pew Research Center)
- Student loan forgiveness divides Americans more by party and age than by education (CNN)
September 1, 2022
Last week President Biden accused the GOP of “semi-fascism” and said some “MAGA Republicans” “embrace political violence.” The statements stirred quite a conversation around the use of “semi-fascism,” which has no real agreed upon definition. But fascism itself certainly has an established one that includes autocratic government, dictatorial leadership, and suppression of opposition.
Regardless of one’s opinion on Biden’s choice of words, it opens an important conversation on how to discuss openly anti-democratic political candidates. Some Republicans holding or running for office continue to deny election results and use coded language to telegraph that Democratic wins are inherently illegitimate. Many members of the GOP still bow to former president Trump despite his embrace of political violence and investigations into his handling of classified documents. In the case of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, suppression of opposition is out in the open.
Labels are only so helpful, especially in the news. But this behavior cannot accurately be described as “conservative,” “right-wing,” “controversial,” “populist,” or “unconventional.” It is anti-democratic. And the news media needs to describe it as such and with urgency to U.S. voters.
September 8, 2022
“Prebunk” election denialism for your audience.
“Prebunking,” a riff on debunking, means proactively explaining media manipulation techniques for audiences so they can recognize them in the wild. A new study shows this strategy is very effective in “inoculating” folks against misinformation. In addition to providing ample fact-checks on candidates, this “prebunking” method is a tool newsrooms should add to their midterm election plans.
What should you be “prebunking”? Election denialism is a good place to start. FiveThirtyEight recently reported that more than half of Americans will have an election denier on the ballot this fall. We can easily predict based on previous elections that losers of races will call the winners (and even the entire electoral system) into question. This will happen at local and national levels. In fact, some candidates are already laying the groundwork for 2024.
Start a “prebunk” for your audience right now and publish it before the midterms. Make sure it’s prominently displayed past its publication date. Explain how your local voting system and elections work and highlight true voter fraud cases or lack thereof. Explore the hypocrisy of elected officials calling into question the same system that got them elected. This can help “vaccinate” your audience against the coming wave of election denialism.
A Better Way to Tell Protest Stories
Danielle K. Brown and Summer Harlow, Center for Media Engagement
We’re big fans of the Center for Media Engagement and the research of Danielle K. Brown and Summer Harlow (whose work heavily influenced our study of Philadelphia protest coverage, by the way). So when we saw them all team up, we knew we’d learn a ton from their research on humanizing and legitimizing protest coverage of underrepresented groups. You will too.
The press will either save American democracy…or doom it
Parker Malloy, Nieman Lab
Each year Nieman Lab rounds up predictions for journalism from industry thought leaders and in 2021 we found Malloy’s (formerly of Media Matters for America and now writing newsletter The Present Age) to be the most urgent. Their discussion of how the news media’s decisions in the very near future will impact U.S. democracy is neither overstatement nor being taken seriously enough, in our opinion. Other prediction honorable mentions go to Anita Varma and j. Siguru Wahutu.
How does this end?
Zach Beauchamp, Vox
If you are looking to get a sense of the many futures possible for American democracy (the good, the bad, and the ugly) after the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, you’re in luck. Beauchamp asked several experts on polarization and civil conflict what they see in the tea leaves, and it makes an unfortunately necessary read for anyone invested in U.S. democracy.
Joe Rogan, Spotify, and the difference between speech and association
Jon Allsop, Columbia Journalism Review
At the end of January 2022, Neil Young demanded Spotify remove his music from their platform in protest of the media company paying Joe Rogan for his podcast, which is often the vector of misinformation. Allsop’s take on it explains why the tiff was much more than a celebrity squabble.
Opinion: The media still haven’t learned how to cover the GOP threat to democracy
Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post
Rubin offers a damning critique of the mainstream press’s current coverage of the Republican party’s active attack on U.S. democracy. But she also offers six ways that coverage could and should be improved, ASAP.
The Supreme Court tears a new hole in the wall separating church and state
Ian Millhiser, Vox
With much of the focus on Supreme Court decisions falling on the fate of Roe v. Wade, I wanted to amplify another important decision that came down in summer 2022 that didn’t received as much attention. Vox has explained just how influential this week’s Carson v. Makin decision is for the foundation of U.S. democracy. It’s a quick but useful read.
‘A mockery of democracy’: US supreme court in question after abortion ruling
David Smith, The Guardian
The Supreme Court’s recent rulings will have immeasurable impacts on pregnant people, the livability of our planet, people who don’t want to be killed by guns, and much more. But altogether they symbolize something bigger: institutions of U.S. democracy imposing laws against the will of the people. For instance, despite our laws, recent polls show Americans want to control gun violence and broadly want gun control laws. A recent study has shown that SCOTUS is more conservative than 75% of Americans. And Republicans want SCOTUS to give state legislatures the power to ignore voters and pick the president. In this article, the Guardian explores how these events call the court’s legitimacy into question.
Reporter and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones offers important advice for journalists re: January 6, 2021 and the U.S. elections. In a follow-up tweet, she suggests starting with How Democracies Die and How Fascism Works. Another good read might be Mother Jones’ “What if Media Covered the War on Democracy Like an Actual War?”
Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley is referring to bills which made the rounds in U.S. state legislatures in early 2022. One such bill about “teacher’s loyalty,” proposed in New Hampshire, looked to ban teachers from advancing any “theory” or “doctrine” which promotes a “negative” account of U.S. history. If the dangers of such a political movement aren’t clear, we suggest checking out Stanley’s recent essay on America being in “fascism’s legal phase.”
Reporter Christopher Ingraham helpfully gathered some examples of evasive language from major media orgs regarding the tenor of the GOP’s questioning of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings. Let’s tease out the hypothetical decision-making here. If the parts of these hearings in question were overtly about race more broadly, the newsrooms would not use phrases like “racially tinged” as they’d be justified in directly referring to them as “about race” or some such. So they clearly mean something else.
What they mean is some of those questioning Jackson did so in a way that was clearly antagonistic toward Jackson because of her race. That’s quite literally the definition of racism. So, why not use “racist” instead?
Some excuses you might hear in a newsroom are that it’s a “strong word” or even that it describes a kind of intent that journalists can’t know. But if your newsroom policy relies on someone admitting they are being racist before calling their actions racist, you’ll be waiting a long time — while denying what everyone else can see with their own eyes. For the record, even the Associated Press Stylebook advises against such euphemisms.
In May 2022, protesters demonstrated outside of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s home and wrote with chalk outside of Senator Susan Collins’ home to voice their opposition to the leaked draft of an opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Some media reports and politicians’ statements on the protests have exaggerated what have been peaceful events led by people well within their rights to do so.
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis’s reminder of perspective is a lesson to be learned by news producers. When framing stories on protest, the issues at the heart of any demonstration — who they impact, what that impact looks like, and who’s wielding power — should be at the forefront. Undue focus on complaints over peaceful protest suck oxygen from the more important story at hand and prioritize the voices of those in power.
I’m including a rare thread here because each word from civil rights lawyer and Ford Foundation fellow Sherrilyn Ifill deserves attention. There are of course many angles to any story like the search of a former president’s home. But newsrooms must be careful to make the most important angles the most salient to audiences.
Journalist Charles Fishman pointed out this odd headline on a New York Times story about the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Calling this a “feud” implies that the FBI’s actions were politically motivated, rather than based on the National Archives’ suspicions of wrongdoing. That one word does a lot of editorializing here.
Media critic Parker Molloy raises a critical point about media owners who seek to “balance” their coverage, from recent CNN shakeups to this new plan for the already right-leaning Politico. Balance, neutrality, and nonpartisanship are often code for appeasing (and thus gaining the eyes and money of) right wing audiences who complain about any coverage that strays from their reality-bending views.
October 28, 2021
Sigh. Considering the exceptional political polarization of U.S. society and the slate of broadly popular legislation that has hit the cutting room floor in recent years, perhaps we can all agree something is up with U.S. democracy. But, to put that at the feet of the Democratic party alone, as this Rolling Stone headline above does, despite acknowledging in its opening ‘graph that Republicans are seeking to curtail voting rights and overturn fair elections (those critical pillars of said democracy), is disingenuous and inaccurate. Sure, headlines aren’t the best place for nuanced political commentary, but in this case the answer for reframing this headline is found in a meme: Why not both?
December 16, 2021
In December 2021 a U.S. House select committee investigating the events of January 6, 2021 revealed a number of text messages sent to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows by lawmakers and journalists. Some of the texts are from panicked people stationed within the Capitol while the deadly riot unfolded urging the then-president’s team to end the violence. Others, including one from Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, are from Trump allies suggesting ways he might illegally seize power. Of course, a U.S. lawmaker seeking to keep a president in power against the will of the people is extremely newsworthy and demands public attention.
Vague headlines like the one above, from CNN, however, don’t help audiences jump into this complex story. By leaving out details (who is Jordan again? what texts are we talking about? what did it say?) this headline makes big assumptions about its audience’s knowledge of a story that unfolded over many days during the busiest time of year. It would be perfectly understandable for many Americans to have missed this story completely. And without key details, this headline displays no sense of urgency to the public. Contrast it with the one below, from CNBC; crucial contextual elements help audiences get up to speed on this important story before they even get to the article.
January 20, 2022
In late January 2022, the U.S. Senate failed to advance legislation to expand voting access and a change to Senate rules that would allow the legislation to pass failed by a 52-48 margin. All of the Republicans in the Senate, as well as two Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, made this happen. As with any big news event, it’s critical that reporting on this centers both those responsible for the action in question and who those actions will impact.
The headline above, from CNN, focuses the story on Democrats’ “defeat.” This plays into the politics-as-spectator-sport framing of legislation that erases the very real people who are impacted by the actions of Congress as if it’s all just a game. (Were Democrats defeated, or were voting rights for the entire country defeated?) It also obscures the Republican party’s prominent role in the outcome of last night’s debate by assigning no actor to the failed vote.
By contrast, the above headline from CNBC, properly positions the actor and the act: Republicans blocked the voting rights bills alongside Sinema and Manchin. While it’s certainly relevant that two Democrats also blocked these bills, the emphasis should be on Senate Republicans. The press often takes for granted that all legislation should split along party lines and thus focuses on outliers who cross the aisle. In reality, any of the 50 Senate Republicans could have chosen to alter Senate rules to expand voting rights and chose not to, and in news coverage those 50 should receive as much responsibility for this outcome as Sinema and Manchin.
February 3, 2022
The New York Times reported that, after the 2020 election, Donald Trump asked his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, “to ask the Department of Homeland Security if it could legally take control of voting machines in key swing states.” That, apparently, was after asking the Attorney General if the Justice Department could do it.
So it sounds like the former president had quite a specific, prominent role in the attempt to seize voting machines: asking those on his team to do something completely unprecedented in U.S. democracy. It’s curious that the Times would describe it so vaguely in their headline, above. We always prefer precision here, making the Guardian’s reporting on the Times’ discovery, below, a better option.
March 24, 2022
A hearing for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee — which literally has two partisan sides and entails a lot of one-on-one conversation — can quite easily be framed by headlines as a head-to-head battle. That makes any bias pretty clear when comparing different framings side by side. That the hearing in question below was of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice, makes it even more important to get right.
The headline above, from The Hill, describes Sen. Ted Cruz’s part in the hearing. The word “presses” connotes seeking hidden information, like an interrogator might, implying Jackson has something to hide. Emphasizing “critical race theory” (without quotes) implies it was a legitimate thing for Cruz to be asking about — with CRT being a legal framework to begin with that might have been the case if not for the bastardization of the phrase we’ve described elsewhere. And finally calling the whole endeavor “tense,” a vague assessment of the environs, puts culpability for that tension on both Cruz’s and Jackson’s shoulders.
In reality, any tension or agitation during the hearings was the fault of the GOP who, by many accounts, raised the temperature in the room while Jackson remained calm and patient. The Guardian headline above frames those events in a much more straight-forward and honest way. This construction places Jackson squarely as the recipient of the “attacks” perpetuated by Senate Republicans without equivocating.
March 31, 2022
What makes a good headline? Context, context, context.
The above headline, from the Washington Post, is accurate. But why does it matter that the call logs are missing? The average person reading this may not realize (or it might just not come to mind) that White House call logs are supposed to be complete and turned over to the National Archives for the public’s knowledge of what our president is doing and to whom they speak. Some audience members aren’t old enough to remember the scandal that 18 minutes of missing audio recordings caused for President Nixon, an incident folks like Bob Woodward were quick to note in comparison. The significance may seem obvious to reporters and political obsessives, but our job as journalists is not to assume knowledge on behalf of our audiences.
The headline below, from the New York Times, is better because it quickly provides context and meaning. The gap in call logs — what we don’t know — matters because of what we do know: that on January 6, 2021 Trump was seeking help from Republican lawmakers to overturn the rightful election results while his supporters overtook the Capitol. Thus, a gap this large is rightfully concerning to those investigating any wrongdoing on behalf of the Trump administration. Connecting the dots this easily in a headline does a great service to busy audiences.
April 21, 2022
The headlines below refer to the bill signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in March 2022 which, as the Washington Post reports,:
“…[bans] instruction or classroom discussion of ‘sexual orientation or gender identity’ for kindergartners through third graders in public schools. It also empowers parents to sue school districts over teachings they don’t like, and requires schools to tell parents when their child receives mental health services.”
After the bill passed, the Walt Disney Co. released a statement condemning the bill and asking for it to be repealed. Both of the headlines below frame these events very differently.
The headline above, from a Los Angeles Times story syndicated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, combines two harmful tropes of political coverage. First, it uses the word “feud” to describe a very uneven conflict. As MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan and NYU’s Jay Rosen have discussed on Twitter, calling this a “feud” creates a false equivalence between Disney and DeSantis’ actions. DeSantis and his party have led a bad-faith campaign accusing the company of being “groomers” who support child abuse and made moves to remove the company’s self-governing status in the state. Disney, on the other hand, put out a late, three-sentence statement. These actions are not proportional.
Second, the use of the term “culture war” to vaguely refer to the long fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community is delegitimizing. As we’ve written above, “Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term ‘culture wars’ dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose ‘values’ are enshrined into law.”
The headline above, from Vanity Fair, gets it right. It calls DeSantis’s actions “threatening” and refers to Disney’s actions as “spoke out.” These terms accurately describe those actions without implying they are of equal weight. The headline also refers to the bill as “Anti-LGBTQ,” putting the true goal of the bill in harsh relief rather than referring it to as a “culture war.”
July 14, 2022
During the July 2022 House select committee public hearings on the events of January 6, 2021, important details about a December 2021 meeting held at the White House were revealed. Ten Republican members of Congress and then-Representative-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene met to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
I’ll give the headline above from Axios credit for citing the primary source of this information (White House visitor logs). But it leaves out the most important part of this news: What were the Republicans pressuring Pence to do?
The headline below, from Insider, may be way longer than most newsrooms would allow, but it does cover all the critical details: what the meeting was about and that the president was there. It also adds that crucial fact that six of those in attendance later asked for pardons, implying that they feared what they were doing put them at risk of prosecution. The bottom line: who attended a meeting is important to audiences but only if they know what the meeting was about.
August 11, 2022
The Washington Post published the headline below atop its story on the political implications of the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. It was immediately and harshly judged by media scholars on Twitter for doing the politicizing it accuses of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
The implication of this headline structure is that, if vowing to depoliticize “Justice” came before this search, then the search marks the politicization of it. That suggests that the FBI’s search was not driven by a compelling legal reason, like evidence of a crime, but instead by retaliation against a political rival.
We know little about the search so far. But, considering the measured history of Garland’s approach, the fact that a federal judge signed off on the warrant, and the unprecedented nature of the search, it is likely safe to say the argument for it was compelling.
Regardless of the facts, however, supporters of Trump (including much of the GOP) will likely declare this a “witch hunt” driven by electoral politics. (In fact, violent rhetoric has already begun to spread on the right.) This is the “political firestorm” the second version of this WaPo headline below, updated later the same day, refers to.
This updated version accurately describes the heat Garland will face due to the right’s determination that the search is politically driven — instead of implying he is in fact politicizing his role.
August 25, 2022
I typically avoid using examples from Fox News in this space. That’s largely because I agree with media scholar Dan Froomkin that what the channel produces is not accurately described as news but is instead propaganda. It’s also because the juxtaposition such an example would create is often laughably transparent in its partisanship. Today I feel the comparison is worth making.
In August the Biden administration announced its long-awaited student debt plan. The Fox headline above makes no attempt to hide its opinion on the facts of the news. It refers to student loan forgiveness as a “handout,” a term long used to pejoratively describe public assistance. It also chooses to place the announcement against the backdrop of “as national debt soars. ” (This explainer from Quartz shows why the national debt is used as a scare tactic to avoid public spending, if you’re curious.) Fox could have easily chosen to end the headline with “as student debt soars” but that would paint the announcement in a positive light, which is not the goal here.
In contrast, the Washington Post’s headline tells it straight: what’s happening (loan cancellations) how it’s happening (who gets what money) and who’s doing it (Biden). No naked partisan slant to be found.