By Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Almost a year ago, this column urged community newspapers to tell their readers the truth about the 2020 presidential election — that it was fairly held — to debunk the falsehoods believed by millions.
The truth has prevailed among most Americans, but not among most Republicans, and that’s a real problem for democracy – and for journalism, which is supposed to serve it.
A poll for the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research in October found that almost two-thirds of Republicans and Donald Trump voters thought votes in the election were not counted accurately. Worse yet, more than half said they didn’t think the counts in this year’s midterm elections would be accurate.
Another poll taken about the same time by Marist College asked, “How much do you trust that elections are fair?” Sixty percent of U.S. adults (and 60% of independents) said “a great deal” or “a good amount,” but the partisan divide was stark: 86% of Democrats trusted elections; 64% of Republicans said “Not very much” (36%) or “Not at all” (28%).
If tens of millions of Americans have lost faith in the democratic process, they must also be losing faith in democracy. This appears to be caused mainly by the lies and other falsehoods about the 2020 election.
In stories that mention those falsehoods, most major news media dutifully repeat the fact that there was no election fraud significant enough to change the outcome. But most of the folks who believe those falsehoods don’t believe most major news media.
There’s a lot more trust in community news media, especially community newspapers. But most community papers are not inclined to wade into national issues, and Trump and the 2020 election have become so controversial and divisive that some community papers have even stopped carrying letters to the editor about topics beyond their localities, much less writing stories, columns or editorials.
So, we should stop telling certain truths because certain people don’t want to hear them?
No, and certainly not in this case. We cannot sit by and allow faith in democracy to be undermined; that is the beginning of the end of American journalism as we know it.
How do we tell the truth? By putting in the news columns the most reliable and authoritative reports about the election, and amplifying them with editorials or columns.
The most reliable, authoritative and trusted news organization in the world is The Associated Press. In December, after months of investigation in the six states that were most closely decided in the 2020 election, AP published a story saying there were far too few cases of vote fraud in those states to make a difference in the election. Here’s the lede:
“An Associated Press review of every potential case of voter fraud in the six battleground states disputed by former President Donald Trump has found fewer than 475 — a number that would have made no difference in the 2020 presidential election.
“Democrat Joe Biden won Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and their 79 Electoral College votes by a combined 311,257 votes out of 25.5 million ballots cast for president. The disputed ballots represent just 0.15% of his victory margin in those states.”
The story also said, “The review also showed no collusion intended to rig the voting. Virtually every case was based on an individual acting alone to cast additional ballots.”
This 454-word story probably didn’t get much play among AP members, since it merely confirmed facts that major news media had been reporting for almost a year. But what about news media that aren’t AP members?
Those news media are perhaps my largest area of service as director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, so I asked for and received AP’s permission to republish the story on The Rural Blog.
That seemed fairly easy, but I had another request: Allow weekly newspapers that don’t subscribe to AP to republish the story, and a sidebar story giving details on the investigation in each state.
Adam Yeomans, AP’s regional director for the South, took the request to his superiors, and it was approved. AP had its own requests, including that The Rural Blog include links to both stories, and that weeklies posting them also include the links (except in electronic versions of their print editions).
The AP executives also asked that we have a call this month “what if any impact you found from the weeklies getting access to a report like this.” I want to be able to report that hundreds of weekly newspapers used the story.
But what about the impact?
A little over a year ago, in a column about pandemic misinformation, I wrote, “Changing strongly held beliefs is not a job for newspapers. But not all beliefs are strongly held, and a lot of people aren’t sure what to believe – partly because social media dominate the debate and amplify the extremes.” So, there are readers who will pay attention to the story, and perhaps think differently about what happened in November 2020.
And if they do, will it make much difference in Americans’ warped public opinion about the election? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Especially because that warped opinion undermines citizens’ faith in the democratic process, of which journalism is an essential part. We have to stand up for democracy, and for the truth.