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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Heading into Election 2020, Let's Ask Ourselves: “What Makes This Newsworthy?”

Anita Varma

Steven Senne / Associated Press

Anita Varma, PhD is the assistant director of Journalism & Media Ethics as well as Social Sector Ethics. Views are her own.

In these unprecedented times, déjà vu still hits hard: birtherism against a rare candidate of color on a presidential ticket, “alternative facts” from Kellyanne Conway, and horse race coverage that suggests some elections are decided before they’ve even begun.

After the 2016 presidential election, many news organizations across the country offered unusual reflections for an institution that often prefers to position itself as documenting events rather than affecting them. Convinced that the Republican Party’s candidate for president would not and could not win the electoral college, news leaders admitted that they missed the story (particularly in battleground states). Some began to speak about the insularity and myopia of newsrooms, particularly those located in major metropolitan areas, and vowed to improve.

Yet in 2020, history may repeat itself. Already, polls and pundits who offer snapshots of what would happen if the election were held today bury the fine print of their representativeness (or lack thereof) beneath headlines that claim the Democratic Party’s candidate is ahead in both the polls and the game of election season.

The major problem with gamesmanship as a frame for election coverage is that it renders voters as passive spectators.

One shift compared to 2016 is an emphasis on the need to vote: Beyoncé , Stephen and Ayesha Curry, and former President Barack Obama are just a few names of people with gigantic platforms issuing a call to vote.

Still, the reasons people may not vote seem to elude many election-engaged influencers. Not voting is regularly classified as a form of lazy, irresponsible inaction, without consideration of how people – particularly those who are not central to parties’ electoral strategies – may enact political engagement through means other than the ballot box.

Dwindling voter turnout is seldom acknowledged as a sign of alienation from party politics. If both parties seem determined to win but not determined to serve your community, what virtue does voting hold? Instead of chastising unlikely voters, candidates could engage more of the electorate by demonstrating how they center people’s current struggles in their platform and plans if elected.

To put an end to 2016 déjà vu, let’s encourage each other to practice discernment. In other words, when reading, writing, and sharing stories related to the election, ask yourself: why is this newsworthy? Does it serve the public purpose of engaged and informed voting? If the answer is no, let’s start leaving such content and hashtags behind without regret. Clickbait masquerading as journalism, even (and especially) from “reputable, flagship” news outlets, cannot foster a democratic process.

Elections are not magical solutions to a society’s systemic problems. They are a moment when more people pay attention to politics, though. This time, let’s leverage this attention not by amplifying controversies for the sake of drama, but by maintaining firm focus in solidarity with what is at stake for far too many communities in the United States right now: survival.

This piece was written with support from the Democracy Fund for an ongoing initiative called Solidarity Journalism. If you are a reporter or member of a news organization and would like to participate in a digital workshop on implementing solidarity approaches to reporting, please contact 

Aug 27, 2020

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