How journalists can spot the signs of autocracy — and help ward them off | Leaf Probably

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When journalists turned to Protect Democracy a few years ago for practical advice on how to cover threats to democracy in the United States, the nonprofit organization’s leadership took the questions seriously.

They consulted the works of leading scholars on the history of autocracy and democracy – people like Yale professor Timothy Snyder, who wrote On Tyranny, and Barnard College’s Sheri Berman, who wrote Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe. wrote. And they’ve been thinking hard about how best to cover the threats they see on our own horizons.

By “threats to democracy” they mean aggressive challenges happening now to the free and fair way we govern our nation. This includes everything from the dissemination of unsubstantiated claims to rampant voter fraud to state legislatures’ efforts to make voting more difficult and make it easier for partisans to overturn legitimate election results. That includes efforts to install state officials who are far less upstanding than Georgia’s Foreign Minister Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who refused to comply when then-President Donald Trump insisted he wouldn’t after losing the 2020 election “find” existing voices. And, lest we forget, a violent mob invading the Capitol to intimidate members of Congress while threatening to hang the Vice President.

The result is a 28-page publication entitled The Authoritarian Playbook: A Media Guide, an attempt to give reporters and editors some tools to see what’s happening and report on it effectively.

Although the guide is intended for journalists, every American would benefit from reading it — especially in connection with the House Committee hearings on the January 6, 2021, rioting.

Together, the hearings and the report provide the frighteningly loud wake-up call we all need.

“Democratic relapse happens incrementally, not all at once,” Jennifer Dresden, a political scientist and the report’s lead author, told me. Or, as the report puts it: “By employing ‘salami tactics’ that cut away democracy piece by piece, modern authoritarians are still cementing themselves in power, but they are doing so gradually and gradually.”

Therefore, the 28-page report goes into how, for example, Hungary has steadily developed into a more authoritarian state. It also offers case studies on what happened in the Philippines, Russia, Venezuela and India.

The January 6 hearing was terrifying. It gave me hope too.

Dresden notes that it is not always easy to distinguish variety politics from overarching authoritarianism. Yet what the playbook identifies as the seven hallmarks of a troubled democracy will sound very familiar to those who have been paying attention.

Here’s what those who seek power in an authoritarian way do:

They try to politicize independent institutions. They spread disinformation. They expand executive power at the expense of checks and balances. They suppress criticism and contradiction. They specifically target vulnerable or marginalized communities. They work to corrupt elections. They foment violence.

The question of how to cover these threats is clearly on the minds of those in charge of the country’s largest news organizations.

Last week, the Associated Press announced that it had appointed a “democracy news editor” to lead a reporting team looking at “voting patterns and access, election administration, the dangers of misinformation, trust in elections and institutions, and more.” becomes.

The Washington Post set up a democracy team months ago as it increased its coverage of similar issues. And Joe Kahn, the New York Times’ new editor, told Vanity Fair that “we need to look deeply at the ongoing threat to democratic integrity.”

So what can journalists do? The playbook offers a lot of practical advice, with suggestions tied to each of the characteristics of authoritarian threats.

For example, when reporting on the weakening of checks and balances, do the following: Rigorously investigate violations of laws designed to limit executive authority, such as B. the Hatch Act and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Avoid “political intrigue stories,” which exaggerate dysfunction and chaos and too often have the incidental effect of making voters warm to the idea of ​​executive power grabs.

The report urges journalists not to unknowingly contribute to the spread of disinformation. Don’t magnify political lies by repeating them in headlines. Beware of the “illusory truth effect” where disinformation can be unintentionally spread by stories attempting to debunk it. Instead, examine disinformation as history and consider the systems, motives, funding, mechanisms and actors behind it.

Democracy is at stake in the midterms. The media has to convey that.

I’ve been writing about the importance of focusing reporting on the growing threat to American democracy for many months, and a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to get an early look at the media guide.

I asked Dresden how she thinks the press reports on these threats and how desperate or hopeful she is.

She told me she’s seen a lot of “incredible work” that she admires, as well as instances where journalists don’t provide enough context, repeat disinformation, or focus too much on political intrigue rather than what lies beneath the surface.

Your prognosis for democracy in America is mixed.

“I’m very concerned because I see deeply problematic things that can lead to more systemic problems,” she said. At the same time, she remains hopeful. “There are people trying to fix the ship.”

The report urges journalists to play a role in this – not through direct political engagement, but by remaining aware of the warning signs and communicating them clearly to the public.

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