Journalism's obligation to democracy extends beyond the runoffs
By Lauren Harris
Yesterday, Georgia voters returned to the polls to decide which candidates would represent the state in the US Senate—and, by extension, which party would control Congress for the next two years. Early this morning, national outlets declared Reverend Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, the winner of his race against Kelly Loeffler, a Republican; as of now, the race between Democratic challenger Jon Ossof and Republican incumbent David Perdue remains too close to call. Today, Congress and the Vice President will meet in order to formalize Joe Biden’s election to the presidency—ending, one hopes, a two-day span that includes some of the nation’s most significant democratic operations as well some of the most brazen efforts to undermine them.
The events of the past week are only our most recent reminder that democracy is not inevitable, and the press plays an enormous role in the continuing fight toward its full realization. Journalism’s role in the Georgia runoff began long before yesterday; faced in November with the inevitability of a January runoff, the press responded with a barrage of service journalism— explainers on the mechanisms and origins of Georgia’s runoff, information on Georgia voter registration—as well as drawing attention to the stakes. Yesterday, local front pages throughout Georgia emphasized the national importance of the election; reminded readers of voting hours; noted, in select cases, lower numbers of early ballots than reported in November; or offered voting guides to help voters navigate the process.
The availability and volume of good information is critical to any election. However, as recent years have made distressingly clear, the availability and volume of disinformation is also extremely powerful. Efforts to undermine democracy’s function have been rampant, particularly (though not exclusively) during the past several months. On top of the disinformation targeting individual voters in Georgia, the president and other Republican officials leveraged the power of a fragmenting information system to amass support for baseless claims of fraudulent election results, tethering the election in Georgia to the foundations of a parallel universe in which the president had been maligned. Last weekend, reporters revealed—to Georgia and to the nation—that President Trump had pressured Georgia’s Secretary of State to overturn Biden’s November win in the state, and linked his claims to conspiracy-riddled websites. Yesterday, outlets reported the president’s efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the November election results in Congress—a power the Vice President does not actually possess. That news likely reached some Georgia voters even as they headed to the polls; its impact is felt as Congress gathers today.
The press cannot take for granted that American democracy is unbreakable, nor can it assume that unencumbered participation in democratic institutions has ever been the country’s status quo. Runoffs in Georgia have roots in voter suppression aimed at Black voting blocs, as numerous outlets have detailed; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a particularly deep dive into the runoff election’s history, including an unsuccessful 1988 lawsuit, brought by former state Representative Tyrone Brooks, which “alleged the system violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act by diluting Black voting strength.”
Though the conclusion of the Georgia runoff and the certification of Joe Biden’s presidency are both near at hand, the events surrounding both events are sobering reminders that democracy—the idea itself, as well as the mechanisms that enact it—is an ongoing effort. Journalists’ work to ensure that effort—to reveal the flaws and failings and threats, both overt and less apparent, that jeopardize it—is never done.