With just weeks to go until a U.S. election thrown into chaos by the pandemic, concerns U.S. President Trump is deliberately sowing discord about the validity of the result, and a torrent of misinformation and conspiracy theories online, professional journalism and factual information will be needed more than ever.
That was the takeaway message of Sally Buzbee, senior vice president and executive editor at the Associated Press (AP), who was speaking at one of the International Press Institute’s World Congress events on September 29.
“We have an enormous responsibility as American journalists to stand up for facts, whatever those facts are”, she told the panel. “We will make our decisions and our journalism based on facts, and people need to seek out credible sources of factual journalism.”
Buzbee said that journalists across the country had to hold themselves to the “highest standards” to fact-check and provide fact-based news to voters, both before, during and after the election.
“The amount of clear, explanatory journalism we’re going to have to do leading up to the election and after the election is going to be intense. I think everyone in American journalism need to join hands and try to support each other through this process”, she said.
Among those taking part in the event, More Than a Horse Race: Covering the US Elections, were Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, and Tia Mitchell, Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). The event was moderated by John Mulholland, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian US.
During a wide-ranging discussion which jumped from the Supreme Court nomination to the Electoral College, the speakers agreed that the challenges journalists faced in reporting the upcoming election were perhaps greater than ever before due to the coronavirus, so called “fake news”, and the unpredictability of the president.
Asked how her outlet was preparing to cover the election in which the result may not be known for days, Buzbee said: “What we aim to do is aggressively fact check in real time. By having experts go on camera and push back against claims by the president that the election has been rigged.
She added: “We are going to double down on precision on accuracy. If it is a close race, its likely to be a while before the full result is known. We are going to be exceptionally careful about reporting this.”
Mitchell added: “We’ll have to be prepared to report on a lot of litigation and a lot of small court battles at the local level for congressional races. We’ll have to pay attention to how Trump handles a transition if Biden wins.”
Engelberg said this meant preparing contingency plans for journalists and reporting crews to remain in certain U.S. swing states for days to cover possible court battles over ballots. He added that when he was coordinating the NYT’s coverage of the 2000 presidential election, he sent 13 reporters to Florida at once to cover the run off between President Bush and challenger Al Gore. “It was an incredibly difficult, complicated story and it was only happening in one state. So we have to prepare ourselves”, he said.
Discussing the issue of polarization in American politics, Engelberg said that social media algorithms and networks were driving voters into more extreme camps, meaning trust in fact-based news was being increasingly replaced by conspiracy theories.
Giving an example of The New York Times’s investigation into Donald Trump’s tax returns, Buzbee said: “People in America are so polarized that they won’t believe incredible investigative journalism. They just switch off.”
She added: “That’s my biggest challenge and struggle right now. We have to plough that middle ground. This is what I dedicate my life to. But I don’t have easy answers. We have to actually shove the facts into everything we’re doing and that’s hard. It’s changing how we work. We’re trying to figure out solutions in real time.”
Mitchell said that bridging this gap was a challenge due to “news deserts” – rural areas in which the closure of newspapers has left no source of local information. “This means their outlet is Fox News”, she explained. “But unless people actively seek and make the effort to read other news, they won’t get it.” Another issue, she added, was that journalists themselves often did not seek to move outside their bubble and speak to marginalized or under-represented voters, both black and white.
On reporting Trump, Mitchell explained that “context is very important. You can’t just say let elected officials say what they want to say in a vacuum”, she said. Taking the Black Lives Matter protests as an example, she added: “From the right, we see those protests being shaped and coloured in a way that is not always accurate. We as journalists can’t change what they say, but we have to give it context and give it a full understanding so when people read what the President says, we give them more accuracy. That’s something I stress to my colleagues particularly as a black woman.”