Amid attacks on democracy, newsrooms are rethinking approaches to the politics beat

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Steve Caruso/Pennsylvania Capital Star

WITF Statehouse Bureau Chief Sam Dunklau, in mask, interviews Republican state Rep. Jim Gregory.

When rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, their “Stop the Steal” message reverberated in battleground states from Pennsylvania to Arizona where misinformation had festered during the November 2020 election.

For WITF in Harrisburg, Pa., the attacks also marked a turning point in the way the station approached political coverage and how its journalists should hold lawmakers accountable.

“January 6 crystallized this — this was not just something where a politician was throwing out spin,” said News Director Tim Lambert. “This goes beyond anything we have experienced. This was an attack on democracy.” 

The rampant and deadly spread of misinformation at state and local levels has prompted several public radio newsrooms to shift focus away from horse-race coverage of elections and toward civics beats that seek to demystify how government works. Both WITF and KPCC/LAist in Pasadena, Calif., have announced the creation of new civics and democracy beats within the last two months aimed at illuminating the barriers to voting and exposing elected officials who spread lies. Their postings not only advertise jobs but call attention to the plight of American democracy.

“Democracy in America is at its greatest risk of failure since the Civil War,” KPCC’s post states. “As we approach the midterm elections, readers and listeners will need reliable information on the state of our democracy and how they can be active in keeping our political system from collapsing.”

The new role is part of the station’s commitment to cover the “Big Lie” locally in an effort to make the existential threat to democracy relevant to its audience. KPCC CCO Kristen Muller described those plans in a Nieman Lab “prediction,” outlining the need for voter registration guides for school board elections, lists of lawmakers who supported Trump’s false claims and detailed explainers on how votes are counted.

“One thing you have to remember is that misinformation bubbles up from local sources,” KPCC/LAist Managing Editor Tony Marcano told Current. “A lot of this starts locally, and we want to pay attention to who’s putting out misinformation in Southern California.”

Marcano emphasized that the new reporter will get outside of City Hall and won’t cater to political junkies. He plans to help the KPCC/LAist audience keep officials accountable by helping to connect residents with councilmembers and providing more information about the records of candidates who often receive less coverage, such as judges. 

“We’re resetting it from the perspective of voters,” Marcano said. “We don’t want politicians and local officials to drive the narrative. … [We’re] flipping the lens on where these stories are grounded.”

Holding lawmakers accountable

At WITF, the new democracy beat is the latest step the station has taken to counter politicians’ election-fraud lies. In a post on WITF’s website last year, Lambert and Senior Editor Scott Blanchard promised to use “language in our reporting to show how elected officials’ actions are connected to the election-fraud lie and the insurrection.” That strict commitment to accountability applied to lawmakers who signed onto a Texas lawsuit targeting Pennsylvania’s election, signed a state House or state Senate letter encouraging congressional representatives to object or delay certification of the election, or voted against certifying. 

In online articles, WITF includes a breakout box that details elected officials’ connections to the insurrection and explains their participation. After a radio story including such a lawmaker ends, a host reads a tagline.

“As part of our 2020 election accountability policy, we note Representative [Seth] Grove is one of several dozen lawmakers who signed a letter asking Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral college vote — despite no evidence that would call those results into question,” read one on-air tag.

Instituting these practices has created some friction with lawmakers. Since last January, some politicians have declined to appear on WITF’s programs or have complained privately about the policy to the station’s state capitol reporter. Republican Rep. Scott Perry, who is under scrutiny for his ties to the “Stop the Steal” movement, has turned down 37 interview requests since last spring, Lambert said. Lawmakers have also argued that WITF’s language appears to target only Republicans, which Lambert points out is a result of Republicans signing many of the letters.

“We don’t care if they’re Republicans or Democrats. If a Democrat would have signed that letter, we would have mentioned that Democrat,” he said. “This goes back to standing with the facts and standing by democracy. So it’s not partisan.”

WITF has provided some leeway for lawmakers. In their post last year, Blanchard and Lambert wrote that journalists would “consider whether the lawmaker has admitted their mistake” and how the details of their actions fit into a story. Last February, WITF contacted state 76 lawmakers to ask why they supported actions that could have disenfranchised Pennsylvania voters. Two responded to WITF’s query. Only one lawmaker, Rep. Paul Schemel, mulled whether his concerns over procedural issues with the election were conflated with President Trump’s claims that the state’s results should have been overturned.

Schemel was one of several Republican state lawmakers who signed a letter urging members of Congress to object to his state’s electoral votes going to Joe Biden. Schemel did not disavow those claims but later said that voters should trust the state’s electoral system. WITF adjusted its language to reflect Schemel’s comments.

Blanchard said he’s surprised that no lawmakers have admitted they were wrong to push the election-fraud lie. He had hoped that by highlighting their deeds, “at least some of these lawmakers would understand what they had done, and they would say, ‘I was wrong.’”

Stepping outside the statehouse

At the Texas Newsroom, a collaboration of four stations across the state that are part of NPR’s effort to boost reporting in underserved regions, statewide managing editor Corrie MacLaggan is shifting the focus of political reporting, starting with a fresh look at the Texas Capitol reporter position. MacLaggan is looking for a journalist who is comfortable navigating the halls of the statehouse but can also cover the diverse communities affected by legislation.

“That means talking to voters, but if there’s a big education bill, we need to be talking to parents, teachers and students,” she said.

The newsroom has already oriented its coverage with an eye on voting rights. A recent story by health and politics reporter Ashley Lopez examined how supply-chain issues are limiting the number of voter registration forms the Texas Secretary of State’s office can distribute. MacLaggan also noted that the newsroom has added reporters to underserved areas, with two journalists in the Rio Grande Valley and plans to expand coverage into parts of North Texas.

“The Texas Newsroom is shifting how public radio reports on politics because we’re making political reporting more accessible to communities who don’t have access to reporting,” she said.

KCUR Director of Content C.J. Janovy reached out to WITF’s Lambert in December to discuss the Pennsylvania station’s accountability policy. Since then, she has started contemplating her newsroom’s political coverage ahead of several key races this fall, including the battle for Missouri’s open Senate seat.

The Jan. 6 riots fueled a sense of urgency and hypervigilance at KCUR, where reporters have covered how Sen. Josh Hawley has prospered from his support of insurrectionists. Journalists also held private citizens accountable, listing the names of both Kansas and Missouri residents charged in the attacks. While KCUR has no current plans to create a civics and democracy beat like KPCC or WITF has done, the newsroom has focused on the spread of disinformation. Over the summer, lies surrounding public health fueled the spread of the delta COVID variant across Missouri.

“We’re in a part of the country where public health has been extremely politicized,” Janovy said. “There’s a danger of amplifying messages that could be characterized as anti–public health.”

While Janovy has seen fissures develop in American democracy for the last 40 years, she notes that the need for incisive reporting feels more immediate now.

“It feels as if we’re facing existential threats in our country, and that has to inform the work that we do in more urgent ways,” she said.

One thought on “Amid attacks on democracy, newsrooms are rethinking approaches to the politics beat

  1. “Blanchard said he’s surprised that no lawmakers have admitted they were wrong to push the election-fraud lie. He had hoped that by highlighting their deeds, “at least some of these lawmakers would understand what they had done, and they would say, ‘I was wrong.’””

    Hey I applaud WITF’s efforts here, full stop. But absent any changes in who gets voted into office, wouldn’t this seem to indicate that WITF’s approach…noble as it may be….simply isn’t working? Grand noble efforts mean little if they don’t result in objective change.

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