The democracy beat is all the rage in news coverage. But the press needs to do more than follow current events. As the “fourth estate,” independent news works in a system of checks and balances. At its best, the press can hold government accountable to the people. And so, the way it covers democracy and dictatorships matters. That reporting informs the way we vote and how all of us, as people, understand the world.
To discuss how the press can better report on diverse communities and cooperate globally we have Erin Carroll and Rebecca Hamilton. Erin and Rebecca are both journalists turned law professors. Erin teaches classes on technology and the press, as well as legal research and writing at Georgetown Law. Rebecca teaches criminal law, national security, and international law at American University. She’s also a member of Just Security’s Editorial Board.
Paras Shah: Welcome to the Just Security podcast. I’m your host, Paras Shah.
If you follow the news, you might have noticed a new trend: the democracy beat. The Washington Post has a “Democracy Team,” the Associated Press has a Democracy Editor, and outlets from ProPublica to The Texas Tribune are hiring “democracy reporters.”
As the “fourth estate” – independent news works in a system of checks and balances. At its best, the press can hold government accountable to the people. And so, the way it covers democracy and dictatorships matters. That reporting informs the way we vote and how all of us, as people, understand the world.
To unpack how the press can reform, build resilience, and adapt its coverage for Twitter and TikTok we have Erin Carroll and Rebecca Hamilton.
Erin and Rebecca are both journalists turned law professors. Erin teaches classes on technology and the press, as well as legal research and writing at Georgetown Law. Rebecca teaches criminal law, national security, and international law at American University. She’s also a member of Just Security’s Editorial Board.
So, Erin, when I read the news, I've been seeing a lot of stories about “democracy” and “democracy beats” and the question I have is, what role should the press be playing when it covers democracy?
Erin Carroll: So, this is really a core function of having a free press. Its very existence promotes democracy. And it does this by creating a forum for deliberation of ideas of public importance. And that deliberation, right, is central, maybe the central piece of democratic governance. And it also serves as a watchdog over government incompetence and waste and corruption. So I see a free press and democracy as deeply intertwined. But this work of ensuring that the press is free and that democracy exists is never really done. Pro-democracy beats are a really good first step in doing that.
And I think, to the extent they focus on the newsroom and they focus the general public in a really concrete and visible way on the importance of this work.That's an important step to take. There needs to be coverage about the rise of authoritarianism. There needs to be coverage about attacks on voting rights and press freedom. But the press is also – even though it has faced these huge economic difficulties in the last few decades – it's still a vital American institution, and I think the press can do a lot more to bolster democracy and be pro-democracy than just have these pro-democracy beats.
Rebecca Hamilton: What is really important in what Erin said there – and, also if you haven't read her amazing law review article of free press without democracy, then it fleshes out some of these ideas beautifully– but I think the key starting point is to understand that the press doesn't stand outside of a democracy, right? Which is sort of the impression when you get with, with a democracy beat. The press is integral to the democratic system in a couple of ways.
And one is, as Aaron was saying, that watchdog role, right? It's not efficient for me as a private citizen to put in the hours to do the FOIA request to figure out if there is corruption in government contracting. And even if I did that, I wouldn't get it out to everybody. And so we need journalists to be doing that work so that we can hold government accountable.
Corruption, as we look at autocratic regimes, are sort of a key driver of the regime, but it's more than that. It's also about giving each of us an insight into the lived experiences of our fellow Americans. That can be and is increasingly hard to get directly. When we think about the state of segregation, frankly, of, of our cities and our suburbs, we think of sort of the way the housing policy is doing that, the legacy of redlining. When we look to the upcoming Supreme Court term and what we're likely to see with affirmative action and the impact that that is gonna have on our education spaces, it is getting harder and harder to get access to the lived experiences of people that look different from ourselves.
And yet, if we are thinking about the press as a bulwark against authoritarianism, one of the key moves of authoritarian governments is to do that othering work of creating an us and a them. And unless we can sort of build ourselves up as a citizenry and understand the press as key to doing that, then we are making ourselves as a population more vulnerable to that slide away from democracy and towards authoritarianism.
Paras: Right, and some of the pieces that I enjoy the most – and Caitlin Dickerson's spellbinding piece for The Atlantic, "An American Catastrophe," comes to mind – they ground these really big questions of law and policy in people and communities. So her piece took this giant framework around how the U.S. government separated families and it honed in on the experience of the people who had to make those decisions and the people who were affected by the consequences.
Erin: One of the key functions of the press right now has to be to connect us by creating these forums for public deliberation on issues that impact all of us, this idea that Rebecca's talking about, about understanding the lived experience of others. And that means a press that isn't just catering to elites, but a press that is really getting out into communities and understanding what those communities need. And the press historically has not been great at doing this. And I think it is realizing that more and more now, and there are big movements among journalists in order to do more what has been called engaged journalism, or community-focused journalism. So really understanding audiences, not simply through the data that we're collecting through CrowdTangle or something like that, but really having these hard conversations, which is really time consuming human intensive work. And I think that's one of the things that journalists realize needs to happen and is happening.
Rebecca: We are seeing this slowly, it's not fast enough, but we are seeing it with the diversification of newsrooms, right? It's very hard to do that kind of reporting unless you have people inside your newsroom that have connections to those different communities and can build trust for those communities. And so in some ways, the question about how can the press help democracy, each newsroom itself needs to be a model of what a vibrant and engaged democracy is. The overall point that we are getting to is democracy. Beats are a great animal, but they're a pretty narrow conception of what is actually needed in this space.
I think a good starting point is to acknowledge that the US press has never been objective when it comes to reporting on the state of US democracy. When we think of sort of the legacy news organizations that have predominantly been staffed by the equivalent of the propertied white male, for whom US democracy has looked quite different to what it has for others within our population, they've been fully immersed in this narrative that the US is this beacon of democracy, um, has always been a democracy and therefore will always be a democracy. Now I'm generalizing of course, there have been individual exceptions to that, but that has been the general thrust of the story.
There are other Americans for whom that has not been their experience of democracy in this country and perhaps have been quicker to recognize that democracy is not immutable, permanent, to be taken for granted. We are having to fight for it every step of the way.
Erin: And I want to call out a piece that Rebecca wrote in 2020 for Just Security describing National Guard troops being deployed on protestors in Lafayette Square. And she wrote this through the lens of a foreign correspondent, so trying to remove the filter that sameness and familiarity bring, the filter that an American might bring to an American event, and trying to bring that clarity that comes with independence. And I think that's just the kind of work we need to be doing, to see how these different norms can impact us.
You know, we've also been, you know, norms have been changing to the extent of how we cover white supremacy, how we cover autocracy. There's been more thinking in our world of information overload about when journalists should speak about something or should not speak about something, which has been called strategic silence. And we see this in the work of Joan Donovan, Dana Boyd, Whitney Phillips. So we see these norms evolving, but it's a slow process and it's a necessary process.
Paras: Erin, in your Just Security piece, you propose steps the press can take to support democracy, what are some of those steps?
Erin: I mean, the idea with democracy beats is we're gonna substantively cover some things differently. But my thinking is that the press is still a really powerful American institution with a lot of heft. It has the ear of elites, it still has agenda setting power. So I think there's a lot of power for it to lead by example. And I think there's a couple of different things it could do, both in terms of process and in terms of other things.
But one is that American journalists tend to be hyper-competitive by nature. That's the way that the business has always been, and one of my suggestions is that journalists become a little bit more cooperative in their work. I mean, this is both necessary in an age of dwindling resources and increased information too. So crowdsourcing how we get through information is important, but specifically with fighting autocracy, there is this sense of American exceptionalism that Rebecca's alluded to too, where we don't think it can happen here, right? American journalists need to understand what that turn towards autocracy looks like, so that they can recognize it and be able to cover it better. And that means learning from the many, many journalists around the world who are dealing with this day in and day out. And I think we see good examples starting to happen with people like Maria Russa, who has gotten all kinds of publicity with winning the Nobel Prize. And so we're more focused on that. So we're seeing these things happen, but I think American journalists need to do that more.
Paras: And Bec, you've seen these issues as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and other outlets, I'd love your take on this as well.
Rebecca: Once we dislodge this idea that it can't happen here, a slide towards autocracy, um, then I think that opens up the sort of humility needed to go and learn from other spaces where journalists have been working under authoritarian systems and, you know, key within that is, this solidarity is between different members of the press who are united by the desire to get information out. And that means having different pathways and that when at one point someone is under scrutiny from the government, worse than that is being attacked or even physically attacked by government forces, that there are other people who take on that work. a
And it also means working to support the families of journalists that are under threat for doing the work that they do. I think of this in Sudan, being there at the moment one night when security services came and literally shut down the printing press and the journalists there were used to the system, knew how to do it, contacted their friends in another location and found ways to get the information out. But it takes a community to do that. You cannot do that in isolation. So that's absolutely something that we can start to work on to prepare ourselves and again, build resilience in the system.
Paras: That goal of building solidarity is such an important point. A recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists found that 67 journalists and media personnel were killed last year. That's nearly a fifty percent jump, and that’s nearly a fifty percent jump from 2021. So deepening cooperation and collaboration are some steps. Erin, what else can the press do?
Erin: Another thing that news organizations could do is to be a little bit more open to unionization within their ranks. So why is this pro-democracy? Well, it's been said that unions are one of these institutional forces that bring people together across racial lines, gender lines, religious lines, all kinds of other lines that would normally divide us. And it just so happens that there is a huge unionization movement within the press right now. As to be expected, most management has been incredibly resistant to this. Just one example of a press organization that's doing very well, The New York Times, their journalists haven't had a contract in almost two years. So a softening of the anti-union sentiment by press organizations would be welcome.
Another idea would be to stop relying on data as heavily as journalism is relying on it now, if it comes to page views and clicks, and start to realign the mission more with the fundamentals of, how do we serve as a democratic institution? So journalists have all kinds of data now that they did not have 10 or 20 years ago, and it is human nature and it is probably good business to use that data to get more and more clicks. But I do fear that it is driving coverage far more than it should be, and preempts journalists from using some of that more independent judgment that we'd like them to use about what needs to be covered.
I mean, one final idea I'll throw out there quickly is there are a lot of billionaire owners of media institutions right now, and no matter what we think about that as a structure for media ownership, those individuals should be encouraged to be doing more in terms of lobbying, work in courts in order to protect press freedom and advance press freedom. You know, newspaper organizations when they were flush with cash did a lot of this work in the sixties and seventies, in getting FOIA passed and other press rights enshrined. And so some of those billionaires might think about doing some of that work now too that's not being done, that's not at the forefront of lobbying and litigation efforts.
Paras: Okay, so I want to turn to the elephant in the room, which is the role of social media companies. So how do platforms like Facebook and Twitter play into all of this?
Erin: The press has been clumsily trying to figure this out for a while now, but the clumsiness isn't entirely the press's fault, right? It's part of the problem. The algorithms are proprietary. They’re obscure, they're multiple, it's not clear that it's even possible to totally understand how they function. They're also changing all the time. So trying to get a foothold in an algorithmic landscape, I think, is really tough. And it doesn't seem that the platforms had a lot of interest in surfacing signal or high quality news and information over noise. So Facebook, for one, has deprioritized news and Rebecca has written about how it did this in a very big and vindictive way in Australia.
So it can't be all on the press, right? I think one thing that we can think about doing too is teaching people, teaching younger people sooner about the processes for generating good information and refining these processes. So, one really imperfect analogy I have might be the scientific method. So we learn early in our educations about this fundamental process that scientists use to get to truth. They observe, they question, they hypothesize, they gather data, they analyze. And journalists also use processes to try to get to truth, or at least as close as they can to that. And that process is evolving with technology, but in it includes things like generating story ideas from careful observation of a community, listening to community members when reporting a story, interviewing from multiple sources, deciding who's gonna have the best information on the issue at hand, who's qualified to speak about it, coming up with diverse sources, backing up interviews with documents and data and video, using public documents, using an editorial process. That means not just one set of eyes is on anything that then goes out to the public. Correcting mistakes when those mistakes happen and correcting them publicly.
So I think as students learn about processes for building scientific knowledge, they can learn about processes for building other kinds of knowledge. So we'd have better news and information literacy, and over time I think we'd have a better, an improvement, of the process. Again, back to this idea of democracy always needing to reinvent itself, and journalism needing to continually reinvent itself too, because the two are intertwined. And so ensuring that journalism is continually reinventing itself for the system that it's facing, and ensuring that it's keeping pace with all of the technology that's changing around it.
Rebecca: I would love to see a greater focus, or refocus perhaps, on this question of what is the purpose of the press in the first place, rather than the creep that we're seeing over the last five to ten years, which is letting that question of purpose be overshadowed by the logic of social media, which as in its current iteration, is dominated by an ad surveillance model. And there's a whole lot of implications that flow from that. You know, the way that Facebook or Twitter or any of these US social media organizations make profit is by getting advertisers who will pay more for the longer that there are eyes on the product, and then they extract personal data about us that supports further targeted advertising.
It is that basic logic of that ad surveillance system that is behind the way that the algorithms are configured so that they keep our eyes on the site, and then we get this flow on effect to the clickbait headlines where journalists are – by looking at the data that Aaron's talking about, by looking at number of views on a page – are literally constructing their headlines, in order to get eyes on a particular page. It just seems like we are risking backing into the social media platform's logic instead of putting at the front end the purpose of the press.
When we think about how we're constructing news that goes online, if we were regrounding ourselves in the questions of what is the press for? What is the purpose of it? When we think about government watchdog, when we think about building empathy across different lived experiences of the population, that's a very different starting point from how am I going to write this headline so that it gets the greatest number of clicks and how am I going to ensure that advertisers stay on this page?
So I think there needs to be an unwinding of that trap that we've started to fall into. And it's complicated by the fact that the news industry has been going through a very economically tough time, and all the money in advertising has gone digital, has gone into this ad surveillance place, but there needs to be a balancing here. It cannot just be about economic survival.
Erin: Rebecca is right that that logic of platforms, the gravitational pull of that logic is so, so strong, such that it's bringing press entities into it as well, who are also watching what their readers are reading and looking at what page they go to, to another page they go to and are gathering data about them as well, which is problematic for a First Amendment institution like the press. So I agree completely that we need to try to tease apart these things a little bit more, but it is a very difficult problem given that press organizations are reeling financially and need to find advertisers and subscriptions and ways to even exist.
Paras: This has been such a rich discussion, and there's a lot more to say, but for now do either of you have anything to add?
Rebecca: I would just wrap up on the theme of the need for connections across all of these different strands that we are pulling together. And I think the conversation has only begun to start to unpack the way that government, citizenry, press, social media are all interconnected, and if we want to really have the press be this bulwark against autocracy, then we need to both find a way to support it as people who are outside the press, and then internally make good on that democratic promise in terms of diversifying the workforce, but also supporting that workforce that they can do the work that we're asking them to do.
Erin: Yeah, that was beautifully put. I think I would just add that we certainly have an imperfect press. We have never had a perfect one. I really do believe there's tremendous opportunity right now to make it better and better. I don't think there's any other direction to go in, and so I think we need to think really hard and long about how to do that.
There are wonderful people out there doing the work right now that need to be supported. All of the ideas that I think we've floated, there are people out there already doing these things, so we need to find them. We need to fund them, we need to support their work. And for all the reasons said we've talked about, about democracy and the press being so intertwined, I don't think there's another option but to do that.
Paras: Some of that might even start with listening to this podcast episode. Erin, Bec, thanks so much.
The Just Security podcast is produced in partnership with NYU's American Journalism Online program. AJO trains students to become world class journalists, no matter where they live or work. Find out more about AJO, and how you can apply, in our show notes.
This episode was hosted by me with co-production and editing by Tiffany Chang and Michelle Eigenheer. Our music is the song “The Parade” by Hey Pluto! Special thanks to Clara Apt, Erin Carroll, and Rebecca Hamilton.
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