How TV News Should Cover A President Who Threatens Voting Integrity

Poltics Is Not Partisan

How should TV news cover a president who makes existential threats to democracy as a habit without paralyzing the agency of voters and without giving in to the obvious gaslighting? A few thoughts.

First, lead with the reality.  Reality is going to be political - there are contested questions everywhere - but that doesn’t mean it has to be partisan.   Hundreds - thousands - of Republican, Democratic and third party candidates need a basic sense of what’s happening.  They will want the election to be decided fairly their legitimacy is at stake and Republicans running everywhere will not tie themselves to Donald Trump’s dubious claims IF it hurts their own chances of assuming office if they wi

“ Election night might be over quickly or it might take a while to count all the ballots.”  

That simple phrase encompasses the most likely range of outcomes. It allows for the potential of legal challenges and even disputes, but all it asks of the viewer or reader is patience.   

Taking a while doesn’t mean things are bad. Usually it means that local officials are working stuff out.  Repeat this idea. You’ll explain it in time, but the communications goal here is to reduce the association  between uncertainty, which is normal, and chaos, which is not.   

In fact, the more viewers and readers associate election uncertainty with a normal state of affairs, the more likely it is that they will see attempts to terrorize them about normality as artificial.   And they will continue to exercise their prerogatives as agents of democracy and not yield to paralysis. 

The President’s threats will obtain motive force if people fear that democracy is going to die and stability will yield to chaos.  So explain terror management theory - urge viewers to be ready to put his threats into context.  Saying that his claims aren’t true is a start. But a viewer  will wonder:  _why_ is he saying these things that aren’t true?   It’s up to you, dear journalist, to have a good answer ready. 

The context is that while his threats are threats to democracy and are unprecedented, there are many forces at play.  

Report them out: he fears he’s losing. He wants people to think elections will be chaotic. He likes screwing with the media.  It gives many of supporters satisfaction to see the President make these costly signals and it helps cement their allegiance to him. 

Say this out loud.  It’s not partisan. It’s true. 

As Election Day bears down, continue to condition viewers and readers to live with uncertainty and bring in more specifics.  We don’t know exactly what will happen, but there’s a good chance that X, Y or Z.

Explain to viewers what YOU are doing as a network or station to get the results right and how you will cover legal challenges.  What’s the MOST likely source of voting uncertainty?  How will you cover this? Who will you rely on for expertise and information?  

Local stations should devote at least one segment per day to visually instruct voters about how to sign mail-in ballots, where to drop them off, etc BEFORE you cover the legal issue of the day.  Focus on the normal and the reality.  Repeat these segments every day.

introduce viewers to the officials and judges and justices at a state and local level who will certify results. Make these folks household names BEFORE the election.  Scrutinize them.

 Condition viewers to expect to see and hear a lot of misinformation before during and after the election.  Spend time during newscasts urging them to pause before sharing information they aren’t sure is true.  Do this often.

Emphasize their agency as voters.  We want all votes to count. We want yours to count.  We want your voices heard. That’s our purchase here.  If Trump wins, we will be the first to tell you. If Biden wins... we will be the first to tell you.

Local TV stations need to develop action plans with state and local officials to vet voting related misinformation before airing it.  Tell viewers you’re going to check reports of malfeasance BEFORE you report on them. This is key Don’t amplify what doesn’t need to be amplified.

This is a start.