Journalists struggle to cover election amid rising anti-democratic rhetoric

What’s fair in love and war — and the current election?


With the presidential election just months away, reporters continue to grapple with the conundrum of how to cover a two-party system in which one party is acting anti-democratically.

Just last month, House Speaker Mike Johnson went after another branch of government when he called the Department of Justice’s prosecution of former President Donald Trump an illegitimate “sham” and our court system “corrupt.” You also have Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, and his supporters refusing to commit to the election results this cycle. This comes after Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, in a violent attempt to prevent Joe Biden from being certified as president.

Those concerns have boiled over in media circles thanks to comments made by New York Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn during an interview with Semafor. Speaking to former Times columnist Ben Smith, Kahn conflated calls for the newspaper to do a better job focusing on Trump’s threat to democracy with turning the Times into a mouthpiece for Biden and Democrats.

“To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate because we prefer that candidate’s agenda,” Kahn said.

It’s tricky business trying to cover an election fairly when many on one side of the political divide seem ready to tear down all the rules to obtain power. It’s also important to remember that most of our country’s press is made up of smaller newsrooms that cover their communities but rely on wire services like The Associated Press for the bulk of their coverage of the presidential race and national politics in general.

So, how is the AP approaching its coverage of democracy and the threat Trump and his supporters pose?

Two years ago, AP launched a democracy beat and named Tom Verdin their first democracy news editor. Their work has taken them across the country to cover everything from election deniers running for positions to certify election results to the threats posed to election workers fueled by the incendiary rhetoric coming from Trump and his supporters.

“Truth is the north star, period,” Verdin said. “If somebody is saying the 2020 election was rigged, that it was stolen by widespread fraud, you just come back and say, ‘No, it wasn’t.’ And then you demonstrate your work by doing that.”

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Here’s what they said,’ and sometime later, some other news cycle has a fact check,” Verdin added.

The AP did just that in its story on Johnson’s comments, going beyond simply quoting the Speaker of the House and placing his unprecedented remarks in their proper historical context. 

“It was a remarkable moment in modern American politics: The House speaker amplifying Trump’s defense and turning the Republican Party against the federal and state legal systems that are foundational to the U.S. government and a cornerstone of democracy,” wrote Meg Kinnard, a national politics reporter for the AP.

“That’s how you prevent the normalization and banalization of him and his party,” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote on social media, praising the framing.

Even at the AP, it’s impossible to fact-check and respond to the cascading waterfall of lies and false claims amplified on platforms like TikTok and X. Not to mention fact checks, framed improperly, run the risk of spreading the very misinformation journalists are trying to correct.

Instead, Verdin said he and his team have emphasized explanatory reporting in an attempt to respond to the rush of false claims and misinformation about how elections are run, how voting is done and how ballots are counted. Let’s not mention the insurrection on January 6, the first attempt to block the peaceful transfer of power in our nation’s history.

“The zone has just been flooded with false claims and misinformation, especially since the 2020 election,” Verdin said. “The AP and other news organizations saw there was a real need to focus on these threats to democracy, but also, as importantly, to really try and explain how elections work and how voting works.”

That work includes state-by-state guides on how the voting process works in each state, both during the primaries and on Election Day. It also contains a great deal of transparency on how the AP calls races, especially since most news organizations across the country rely on the news organization for their own local results and reporting.

AP also has a running enterprise series called “Our very complicated democracy,” with stories focusing on how election laws in states differ, why some hold primaries and others have caucuses (and why Nevada had both), and answering other questions voters might be curious about as they register and prepare to vote.

“With an audience out there honestly looking for answers, we’re trying to fill that gap in a way that is much more robust than we’ve done in the past,” Verdin said. “We feel transparency is important, given the environment we’ve seen in this country over the past four years especially.”

Verdin’s democracy team is just a small part of the AP’s national reporting and election coverage, which spans across the globe this year, with half the world’s population voting. Thanks to grant funds, Verdin said his team has been able to scatter across the country and embed themselves in communities, enabling them to talk to voters and deliver real stories to combat false claims on the campaign trail.        

In just one example, the AP sent three reporters to a town in Queens to speak to Chinese migrants about repeated claims from Trump and Republicans that China is sending immigrants here to build an “army” to attack America from within.

As you’d expect, there are many reasons these immigrants decided to come to the U.S. — to seek economic opportunity, avoid persecution and escape China’s strict lockdown during the height of the COVID pandemic. And the claims made by Trump and his supporters have real consequences beyond the politics of immigration — as the AP notes. Asian people have been dealing with a spike of threats and violence “fueled by xenophobic rhetoric” during the pandemic.

“In my view, that is one of the strongest things we can do beyond a simple, straightforward fact check,” Verdin said. “If there are incredible claims with the potential to have major importance, we want to go and examine those claims. In this case, that means going out to the community that’s the target of these claims and speaking to that community directly about it.”

Another way to cover the unique threat Trump and his supporters pose to democracy is to describe life in other countries where autocrats have taken over and chipped away at personal freedoms. AP might be uniquely situated to do that, with journalists reporting on the ground across the globe.

The AP took this approach in March when Trump met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose crackdowns on the press and his country’s political system have been championed by many Republicans following the 2020 election. The story focused less on what was said publicly and more on what Orbán has done to democracy back home in Hungary and why it was being championed by Republicans here in the U.S.

“We are in a moment where the potential to slide into autocracy is real,” Verdin said. “It’s something we’re alert to, and I think we can look across the global landscape and see certain countries that have been democratic that are much less so these days.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at


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  • DaryMat

    Typical Editor and Publisher corrupt media leftist take. Article didn't mention the wealth of Joe Biden's stumbling and bumbling lies. Or that the Democrats have used the legal system Russian style to try and frame and destroy their legitimate opponents. The story ignored its own statements. Like this: "It’s tricky business trying to cover an election fairly when many on one side of the political divide seem ready to tear down all the rules to obtain power." Clearly, to even the most casual observers, this is what the Democrat party is doing. At first read one would think it's a clear reference to the Democrats and its "lawfare." Or, quoting the bias NY Times editor trying not to sound bias: “To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate because we prefer that candidate’s agenda,” Editor Kahn said. Yet that's exactly what the lame stream media has been doing for a decade now. As usual, the story mentions one 90 minute non-violent protest by the right and ignores 600 violent protest in the summer of 2020 by the left. Or hundreds of anti Jewish racist riots and ugly protests by the left currently in play. You aren't fooling anyone.

    Thursday, June 27 Report this