Journalism must support democracy while questioning governments

Yesterday, a series of tweets by Derek Willis, data journalist and a proper journalist-coder with the New York Times, caught my eye. I met Derek when he worked for the Washington Post as a database editor, and a lot of his work for the New York Times has been focused on “political and election-related applications and APIs”. For an example of that work, you should check out the Times’ Congress APIs, which allow you to access data about votes, bills, and biographical information for members of Congress. That’s a long way of saying that he’s deeply committed to enhancing the transparency of the US government.

The tweets that caught my eye were about engaging people in their democracy and not simply feeding their anger about government.


Coverage that calls on people to hate the ‘system’ while also exhorting them to take action to save it makes no sense. A recent poll in the US shows that a negative ‘pox on both their houses’ view of both political parties has taken hold. Republican pollster Bill McInturff was quoted by NPR as saying:

These events have deeply unsettled people and diminished the public confidence required of a great nation.

NPR links to the full results of the poll.

US voters have long needed more political choices, but I share Derek’s concerns about coverage that only drives people to disengage with the democratic process. Corrosively cynical coverage that leaves people feeling powerless will just lead to a sense of civic nihilism. Journalism has to question governments, but it also needs to engage people in creating the change they want.

2 thoughts on “Journalism must support democracy while questioning governments

  1. This article – and Willis – might be well meaning, but both forgot to question and point out one massive and devastatingly important point – who now owns the media?

    At this point in 2013 / 2014 – almost 70% to 80% of all the mass media in this country is now owned by just a handful of corporate entities.

    And these entities, In the end, have 0% real interest or incentive to truly educate the mass citizenship of this country. Because they *are* part of the very system they are supposed to exposing. This country has a massive problem with ownership of media and the lack of protest at the such corporate monopoly of the media.

    1. Milly, count me as officially devastated. Seriously, Derek and I are both journalists. More than half of my career I worked for the BBC and then The Guardian. Derek has worked for the Washington Post and now works for the New York Times. Ownership is not the only thing that determines what journalists cover, and both of us have 100% interest to inform (educate is a bit patronising, don’t you think?) the public. I’ve never had corporate masters come down to the newsroom floor and dictate what I cover. It simply doesn’t work that way, no matter what Chomsky thinks. Most journalists I know are incredibly conscientious people with a deep sense of public service.
      Sure, I do wish that the US has a bit more diversity in media, but people have more choices than ever when it comes to media and viewpoints. They can even read points of view about the US that come from entirely outside of the US political mainstream.

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