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.

Leveson: Should there limits to freedom of the press?

I am a journalist who believes deeply in the mission of journalism. Democracies need strong, independent news organisations to help maintain free societies, but as I think about whether Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, I think of what American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote:

Without a free press there can be no free society. That is axiomatic. However, freedom of the press is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society. The scope and nature of the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of the press are to be viewed and applied in that light.

2012 US Election: Irritating, expensive and precious

This is the first US presidential election that I haven’t covered in the US since 1992, and while it hasn’t been my primarily focus this autumn, I’ve still followed the race very intently. Occasionally, I’ve even done a bit of analysis for The Guardian and also for a project for Mick Fealty of Slugger O’ Toole fame. However, after covering 2000 and 2004 for the BBC and then 2008 for The Guardian, this has definitely been watching the race from afar. 

Some things haven’t changed, or really have got much worse. The permanent campaign that began back in the Clinton era has gone form being a bit of a rhetorical flourish to something approaching an accurate description of reality. As election day 2012 has approached, I’ve already heard talk about Paul Ryan and Chris Christie positioning themselves for 2016. 

It’s all been fuelled by a flood of cash. Yes, it is expected that this will be a $6 bn election, breaking the previous record by $600 m. A big chunk of this money came from Super PACs (political action committees), organisations outside of the campaigns. They have received a majority of their money from less than 200 super-donors, and ProPublica shows just how few people and groups are involved in the bulk of the donations. The amount of money with absolutely no disclosure of the source has surged since 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It was estimated that of the independent political expenditure, almost half would be “dark money”

My friends in battleground states have pleaded just to make the whole thing stop. The politicos should be ashamed of themselves. They have made little girls cry, I say with tongue firmly planted in cheek. 

Flawed but precious

While I’m watching this election from abroad for the first time in my life, there is another lens that I’m watching this election through. On election day, when national and some battleground polls seem to indicate an achingly close race in the US, I know that this is something to celebrate. Rather than the mark of a flawed democracy, as an American, I look at this pitched battle with as much pride as concern about some of the flaws in the process. Why?

Last year, I worked with Tunisian journalists as they prepared to cover their elections. I was touched by their honesty when they said at the beginning of the training that they had never covered an election in which they didn’t know the outcome. Think about that for a moment. For decades, journalists there knew who would win. There was no horse race, as flawed as that type of coverage can be. The result was known even before a single vote was cast.

For my new job, I was in Russia in September. My colleague there says that there is a joke going around in Russia. “Those poor Americans. They don’t even know who their president will be,” Russians will say sarcastically. They knew Vladimir Putin would win. When I was there, I heard a story about an election monitor at one of the polls. An ambulance came up, and a medic said, “Come with us. You are having a medical emergency.” 

American democracy has its flaws. The US system is not perfect, but it is still small ‘d’ democratic. In the past year, I’ve worked with a lot of journalists having their first taste of freedom, and it reminded me of powerful and precious the right to vote is. Go out today and vote!