Russia’s unprovoked attack on the Ukrainian people, coupled with its massive disinformation and propaganda campaign amplified by state-controlled media, serve as a stark reminder of the role a free press and free, unfettered access to factual information play in our society.
And yet increasingly, we see many of the same deceptive and false efforts here at home, putting journalists on the front lines in defense of the truth — and the preservation of our democracy.
Our work as journalists is inextricably linked to the health of our communities and our country, and that’s the pitch we make to our readers each and every day. Access to the facts is not a commodity to be bought and sold, but an essential underpinning of a healthy society.
Many newsrooms and journalists have already stepped up to unambiguously center pro-democracy coverage in their work, particularly in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. Just last month, The Washington Post announced the formation of a Democracy Team to focus on the battles surrounding ballot access and the politicization of our election administration.
The erosion of our democracy is happening not just in Washington, D.C., but also in local communities and state legislatures across our country. Often armed with misinformation, partisan operatives are seeking to influence local election administration and exert their agenda through state laws and state constitutional amendments.
And that makes local newsrooms — and in particular, nonprofit newsrooms dedicated to free public access — central to the fight.
In a column last month, The Post’s Margaret Sullivan issued this challenge: “Don’t be afraid to stand for something as basic to our mission as voting rights, governmental checks and balances, and democratic standards. In other words, shout it from the rooftops. Before it’s too late.”
At Spotlight PA — an independent, nonpartisan newsroom covering the Pennsylvania state government and urgent statewide issues — we’ve already taken steps to center this coverage and clearly explain to readers what’s happening and why it matters, including being the only newsroom in the state to dedicate a reporter to the decennial redistricting process.
We were also among the very first newsrooms to partner with Votebeat, a project of Chalkbeat, to focus resources on coverage of local election administration and voting issues. But these steps, along with strengthening service journalism around election guides and voting information, are only the tip of the iceberg. We must go further and rethink our role in service to our readers.
That’s why at Spotlight PA we are formulating a plan to launch the local journalism equivalent of The Post’s effort — our Democracy Initiative, led by a unique position we’re calling a Public Advocate, to extend our role in service to the public, reach new audiences, and, as Sullivan said, “shout it from the rooftops.”
That includes considering more direct services to voters, such as helplines and training people on the things we as journalists do so often, like requesting and understanding campaign finance reports, filing public records requests, backgrounding candidates, and more. We could also serve as a bridge to directly connect people with the resources or help they need, similar to the work consumer columnists have done for a long time.
This is not advocacy nor is it partisan, but instead an extension of our role and value in a community. We can do more than just provide people information, we can also better equip them with skills and connect them with others who can provide more.
The premise of our Democracy Initiative borrows heavily from some of the most notable engagement work already occurring in newsrooms across the country.
Take, for example, S. Mitra Kalita’s efforts through Epicenter-NYC to directly connect and book vaccine appointments for thousands of people in New York and beyond. Or KPCC’s refocus of its politics coverage away from the horse race and on to helping regular voters, pairing the position with an engagement producer to create more local voter guides and resources.
The time to get creative and go beyond our typical election playbook is now, and we shouldn’t be shy. This work is core to our mission, and, within the nonprofit journalism industry, also aligns with the goals of many of our foundation, institutional, and individual funders. We can meet this moment together, or I fear we will regret our lack of bold action in the future.
Christopher Baxter is the executive director and editor-in-chief of Spotlight PA.