Nothing’s riding on this, except…

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from Feb. 2 for more from the NC Local News Workshop, the latest updates about journalists and news organizations throughout North Carolina, job opportunities and more. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

I’m a member in shameful standing of a big club of abject failures.

The inductees have all directed political coverage in an election year, starting with a dream: We’re going to smash the mold, flip off the strategists and flacks, ignore the horse race and center the voters and their needs in every single thing we report. The dream dies by degrees — in meaningless daily dissection of the latest crazy tweet, in breathless reporting of the latest poll numbers, in recitation of the results and “deep” next-day analysis of what it all means for one political party or the other.

The excuses are many. So are the consequences, because what we’re doing is ceding a very big responsibility.

If what we need is the realization that something truly momentous is at stake — like, say, the privilege of living in, and continuing to build, a society that’s more just and equitable, where everyone’s voice has power — well, it’s here.

There are rumblings again, vaguely familiar but also somehow promising, of changing the viewpoint of political coverage. For one thing, we’re realizing that we need to address the erosion of people’s trust in the very ways we vote, with reliable information about the process.

There’s a sense that what’s really on the line now is democracy itself. At least two public media outlets — WITF in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and KPCC/LAist in Pasadena — are making “civics and democracy” a beat. They’re hiring reporters whose job is to demystify the messy way America works, starting at the local level, and to empower people to participate. Another growing challenge, of course, is dealing with outright deceit — the misinformation and disinformation that has neighbors living in different solar systems. 

Lewis Raven Wallace of Durham and Press On (and The View From Somewhere) sees journalism’s new charge this way:

‘Advocate for democracy, and also report on how to advocate for democracy. In some ways I think that’s even more helpful because people don’t want to hear another like, “This is bad, you should do that,” but how to do it, what you can show up for, that would actually protect our democracy.’ *

Such new approaches to local reporting in the public interest will be part of what we’ll share with one another at the NC News & Information Summit, which will meet at Elon University on March 17. The gathering, presented by the NC Local News Workshop and the NC Open Government Coalition at Elon, will host robust discussions of themes including access to news and information, sustainability and community needs in journalism, government transparency and more.

Registration will open this month, and any decision on format changes (in person or virtual) will also come soon. [Sign up for updates.]

While we’re on this subject…

◼️ Tried but true: In covering election campaigns, start with the people’s priorities, and then report how public officials and candidates are addressing them. Jay Rosen’s Citizens Agenda approach.

◼️ Kristen Muller, chief content officer of Southern California Public Radio, has some ideas in her essay for Nieman Lab’s Predictions for Journalism 2022: Hold local politicians accountable for deceiving voters; make it clear how people can vote and otherwise participate; reveal the structure of power in your community; explain the processes (how votes are counted and verified, how accusations of fraud are investigated, how we know there’s integrity); get candidates to fully explain their positions.

◼️ Amid attacks on democracy, newsrooms are rethinking approaches to the politics beat. Leigh Giangreco, Current.

◼️ We’re shifting the focus of our politics coverage from politicians to voters. Here’s why. Tony Marcano, KPCC/LAist.

◼️ If American democracy is going to survive, the media must make this crucial shift. Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post.

* In the opening passage I quote Wallace in a recent discussion with Sullivan and with Arun Venugopal of WNYC on an episode of The Takeaway that’s worth a listen: How Should the Media Be Covering Democracy at Risk?