Analysis: The midterm elections present a major test for newsrooms in an era of election lies and disinformation

New York
CNN business

The first major test of the era of election denial has arrived.

Tuesday’s midterm contest will be the first meaningful contest since conspiracy theories and lies about the US election process engulfed one of its two major parties whole. A recent poll found that an alarming 66% of Republicans still believe that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

In fact, since 2020 the toxicity of the country’s information wealth has worsened. The right-wing media apparatus has spent months laying the groundwork to challenge the results of the 2022 term if the votes don’t go their way. Major stars like Tucker Carlson have not only given their viewers reasons to doubt their vote, they’ve encouraged them to do so. It’s hard to put into words how prevalent election lies are in the information universe where Republicans almost exclusively get their news. Can’t say too much.

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And the 2022 midterms could bring even more challenges. Margaret Sullivan, media critic and recent author of “Newsroom Confidential,” points out how much more complex it can be to cover the midterms, given that in 2020 former President Donald Trump was the only major candidate who refused to accept the reality of the polls. “In some ways it was simpler, it was a big competition,” he said, adding that this year’s midterms are “much more complicated” because there are so many races that can be contested across the country. “It requires a lot more nuance,” he said.

Further afield, news organizations and social media platforms, where many now get their information, are struggling against a nasty and toxic environment. In the past few days, conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi have gone viral, new Twitter owner Elon Musk — who fueled these conspiracies — has turned one of the world’s most powerful communications platforms upside down, Russia is reactivating its disinformation bots, and the main candidates. The GOP is pushing to deny the results of the election if they lose.

Of course, there will be some election mistakes. As Donie O’Sullivan wrote, “There are tens of thousands of different cities, counties, and municipalities in all 50 states and territories responsible for administering elections, most of which do things differently. There are different voting and counting machines, different local election laws and procedures. there are. There will be confusion, there will be mistakes.”

But small mistakes that are corrected do not make it a massive fraud. Bad faith media organizations and personalities, however, will exploit such situations to draw broad and wrong conclusions that serve to benefit their political worldview. Countering these lies won’t be easy, but as democracy is threatened, news organizations must work quickly and aggressively to stamp them out as they emerge.

In the news industry, however, it is recognized and understood that elections can no longer be covered in the way of the past.

Most news organizations have already begun preparing their audiences in helpful ways for the midterms, stressing that in some tight races it could take days to know the winner for sure. On CNN, political director David Chalian pointed out that in some contests a candidate could come out with a big lead before Election Day, only to see it disappear as the mail-in ballots are counted.

With such mistrust, even news organizations are working to be transparent about the vote counting process. NBC News published an article explaining how it collects and reports election data. And the Associated Press, the defacto election source for most news organizations, has published an article explaining how it declares winners (notably, the AP says it “does not make projections”).

And on election night, viewers will notice a different kind of news organization coverage. CBS News, for example, will have a “Democracy Desk” prominently featured in its coverage to help dispel false claims, but also to help viewers understand the state of the country.

“It’s not traditional,” Mary Hager, CBS News’ executive politics editor, recently told The NYT’s Michael Grynbaum. “But I’m not sure we’ll ever have traditional again.”