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.

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