Over the past decade, democracies across the globe have experienced a recession. From the rise of authoritarian leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to the Jan. 6 insurrection and election denialism in the United States, many countries have observed declines in civil liberties, political rights, and other freedoms — and newsrooms are now grappling with how to report on democracy in peril.
Matea Gold, the national editor for The Washington Post, and Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a Washington-based non-profit working to advance freedom and democracy globally, have long thought about democracy and how the press can better cover the threats to it. Gold launched a new team of reporters covering voting laws, elections, and threats to democracy. Before taking up the role of national editor, Gold ran coverage of some of The Post’s most impactful stories on these issues, including former President Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Prior to his tenure at Freedom House, Abramowitz served as the director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education, as well as the national editor and White House correspondent for The Washington Post.
Abramowitz and Gold discussed the threats to democracy with Nieman Fellows in October. Edited excerpts:
On the current democracy landscape
Michael Abramowitz: Freedom House has been tracking the health of democracy for 50 years. We’re probably best known for a report that we do every year called “Freedom in the World,” in which we assess the state of political rights and civil liberties in every country and territory in the world.
Our research, which is quite exhaustive, has come to the conclusion that we are in the midst of what you would call a democracy recession. What that means is that after a long period of democratization that started in the early 1970s — the so-called third wave that [Harvard political science] Professor [Samuel] Huntington identified — we are now in a downswing.
We’re still ahead of where we were at the end of World War II, but every year for the last 16 years, there have been more countries experiencing declines in political rights and civil liberties than those experiencing improvements. Last year, for instance, 60 countries had declines in political rights and only 25 had improvements, which was one of the widest we’ve seen in quite some time.
You see this democratic deterioration all over the world. You see it particularly in the rise of so-called authoritarian states. China, Russia, are at the forefront of that.
You also see backsliding among democracies. Countries like Poland, Hungary, and India, even the United States, which had been stronger democracies 15 or 20 years ago, have been suffering declines in political rights, attacks on journalists, the weakening of elections, a range of different things that we look at.
I’m very worried about it. I feel we’re in a downward trajectory. I keep thinking that, at some point, we’re going to hit bottom and things are going to turn around, but I don’t think it’s going to be this year. We are really in a period of hurt.
On creating The Washington Post’s democracy team
Matea Gold: The democracy team came out of a line of coverage that I was running in 2020. I was then our political investigations editor, and I was running our voting coverage. We amassed a team of reporters from around the newsroom to run at what we thought was going to be the big story of the year, which was how the pandemic was upending voting and access to the polls.
That ended up being a story about attempts to actually overturn the results. I had a team of incredible reporters who were already poised, looking at different states to see how voting access could be challenged, and then quickly had to pivot to covering the lawsuits that followed, the pressures on election administration, then, obviously, Jan. 6.
After we went through the insurrection and covered that as the newsroom — we launched a big investigative project — it became apparent that this was one of the biggest stories of the country at that moment.
We felt it was essential that we devote a team of reporters to be focused on this non-stop. The democracy team … currently consists of about eight reporters, some in Washington and then we have reporters in Georgia, Arizona, and the Upper Midwest.
More broadly, their mission is to try to get at what does it mean for a democracy like the United States when faith has been shaken in the system, the outcome? How does that translate into our sense of citizenship, how we related to each other?
We see this playing out in small, micro ways where people go to school board meetings now and shout each other down. They don’t believe each other. They don’t trust each other. I feel strongly that driving this, at its heart, is a massive gap in news literacy and information.
There are people who are trying to perpetuate that by pushing disinformation. We’re doing a lot of investigative reporting around that. At the heart of the challenge that we’re facing as a country right now, when it comes to believing in our system of government, is that some people believe in a certain set of facts, and other people don’t.
That creates a huge challenge for us as a newsroom. We obviously want to make sure that we’re reaching everyone with our coverage. There are going to be people who are predisposed not to believe our story, so part of our mission, too — I talk to our staff about this a lot — is that we have to be promoting reader trust at every turn.
Every story we do is an opportunity to reinforce our journalistic values of precision, of rigor, of care. Every interaction we have with a source, every time our reporters are on the ground around the country and talking to people with empathy and respect, is a chance to promote the values of journalism.
On social media
Gold: I often say that I feel very lucky that I covered two presidential campaigns before Twitter. I was one of the last classes before Twitter came in. It completely changed political journalism. It changed how people engage with their elected representatives and how they see themselves in a very tribal way.
We have to reckon with the reality that our information sources are completely atomized now. That is just the world we live in. What we need to do as journalists is be really smart about meeting people on the platforms where they’re getting education, where they’re getting information, and where they’re getting bad facts. Present them with good information and really credible journalism.
We’re increasingly investing in young journalists who are digital natives, who know how to take their storytelling onto platforms like TikTok and Instagram.
The goal is to get ahead of the bad facts. If we can show that we’re nimble and we’re in the place where … we are connecting with young audiences, that is the future.
Abramowitz: I left The Washington Post in February of ’09. I feel like we’re in a completely different media environment than when I left. I was covering the White House before I left, and if I wrote a story, the worst thing is I might get a lot of comments that were mean. Now, White House reporters have to deal with Twitter mobs.
I empathize with reporters today about how hard it is to do your job in the face of unrelenting pressure from people who candidly don’t approach this with clean hands.
Whether it’s Vladimir Putin or some right-wing force, they are deliberately trying to undermine public confidence in journalism. I admire my former colleagues for standing up to that. It’s very, very difficult.
The other observation I would have is [that] the conflict between freedom of speech and democracy has never been more pointed. I’m a free speech absolutist. I feel that people fundamentally should get to say what they want. We have to acknowledge we’re in a situation now where bad actors are exploiting the openness of the internet to undermine democracy itself.
That tension between freedom of speech, freedom of expression, the values that all of us hold dear, and the ability of bad guys to use that openness to undermine democracy is one of the existential challenges of our time.
On how transparency can help journalists cover democracy
Gold: I think we are long overdue to have conversations in newsrooms about how to better pull the curtain back on how we do our job. There’s just been always this assumption that that’s something we should keep to ourselves and people just need to trust us. I think it’s very clear that strategy doesn’t work.
You can see it from the one-on-one interaction you had with a source. You can see it on a much bigger level when we show people what goes into their verifying information, how hard it is to actually get something published. When we explain that to people, that goes a really long way to building that sense of trust.
We’ve started discussions [at] The Post about whether we should be making more of our policies public. The New York Times has been doing great work on this. I saw [that] if a story has a lot of anonymous sources, they explain their policy of when they grant anonymity.
We should be doing things like that all the time. There’s a chance both institutionally to convey those values and explain a little bit about the process of connecting journalism. Every single time I send our reporters out, I say, “Make sure you help use this as a moment when you’re talking, especially to people who aren’t sophisticated consumers or politicians. Make sure you use this as a moment to help educate them.”
That one-on-one interaction you have with someone on the ground in Georgia, they’ll go tell their neighbor and say, “I actually spoke to someone from The Post, and they were really fair.” That really helps us.
On where democracy goes from here
Abramowitz: I did work at the Holocaust Museum for eight years. For me, the most powerful part of the museum is really the opening of the museum, which talks about how Germany, which in 1931 and ‘32, was at the time one of the liveliest democracies in the world. It had a free press. It had elections.
Within a year, it became this dictatorship, and within several years, had been a country that was capable of genocide. That is a very haunting feeling and always fills me not with a warning [that it’s] going to happen again in every country that we follow, but just it’s a pretty sobering thought to think about. I come to work with that thought that you should not rule out all scenarios, even if you work like hell to prevent those scenarios from materializing.
I feel that we could be slipping into a place where our freedoms are — not only [in] the United States, but everywhere — being gradually whittled away. I’m not saying that things are perfect now. There are a lot of problems with our democracy, but we still have our fundamental freedoms. I don’t want them to be stripped away.
Gold: I hope the low point was an attack on the [legislative] branch of the U.S. government. I hope that’s the lowest we reach because that was a horrifying day for all of us who lived through it. I think that everyone’s hopeful we never get to that point again.
I would say my fear is that we could come out of this election cycle with a lot of people positioned with power in the country who don’t believe that the system is fair and could undermine it. We could be in a really unprecedented period of chaos around questions about who actually was elected in the midterms, but much more fundamentally, how do we go forward as a country?
Though, I’m by nature a very optimistic person. I would say that this all gives us a greater sense of urgency and purpose as journalists. It just makes so incredibly essential the work we’re doing every day — not just covering democracy, but covering every aspect of this country with care. It’s the center of being a part of our democracy.
We would not have a democracy without independent press. It just reinforces to us that we have to be incredibly committed to that task every day and always be reaching for the bar of excellence to meet what is expected.