Sources of inspiration and hope at Democracy Demo Day

At the Lenfest/AP Forum on Journalism & Democracy, news organizations and election integrity groups shared ideas for how to strengthen public understanding and confidence in election results

By Richard J. Tofel

May 3, 2024

Chuck Fields looks over his ballot at a polling place Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Mark Twain often remarked that everyone complains about the weather, but nobody seems to do much about it. (Twain commonly gets the credit, although the thought seems to have originated with a newspaper editor named Charles Dudley Warner.) These days, it feels like everyone’s worry is the fate of our democracy. On Wednesday, I was happy to see that lots of smart people in and around journalism are trying to do something about it. 

The occasion was a convening billed as a Democracy Demo Day, which was organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism (for which I do some consulting, including helping to organize the meeting, and for which I have written this piece) and The Associated Press.  

The Lenfest/AP Forum on Journalism & Democracy, held at Microsoft’s New York City offices, offered 12 presentations of practical work being done to shore up the intersection between journalism and our elections. The speakers were chosen from 92 applicants who responded to a public call for submissions. The full list of presenters, along with a quick synopsis of each project, is here.

The range of subjects was broad: presentations had been solicited on any one or more of five tracks of possible activity: augmenting confidence in election results; supporting local elections officials and processes; spurring participation and combating voter suppression; limiting the effects of misinformation and disinformation; and focusing attention away from “horse race” coverage.  

The forum offered a good deal of encouragement to anyone worried that the challenges of this critical year aren’t receiving sufficient attention from smart, determined, capable people.  

Among the most fascinating ideas were a number of news organizations, from Florida to Texas, and Arizona to Kentucky, experimenting with employing influencers, content creators, and other trusted community leaders to draw attention to traditional resources such as voter guides. There were also efforts aimed at providing much more information on down-ballot local races, including those for judgeships.  

Participants also shared a wealth of targeted trainings to better prepare for the next six months on issues from legal issues surrounding covering protests to how smaller newsrooms can dive deeply into candidate backgrounds. (A Knight Foundation compendium of these and other resources available to newsrooms ahead of the election is being gathered by using the form here. Publishers seeking help can fill out this form.) 

Along the way, even those who consider themselves attentive observers probably learned a few things. For me, these included the fact that the accelerating turnover in local election official jobs began not with recent questioning of election results, but instead reflect a trend underway since 2004; that multiple efforts are underway to provide increased voter information in rural areas, very much including to the nearly 25% of the population in such areas who are people of color; that fully 2,500 election officials around the country are directly involved in the process of certifying results; and that perhaps the proportionally most under-represented large group in newsrooms overall is veterans, who make up just 2% of newsroom personnel and 6% of the adult population, while being a prime target of disinformation efforts. 

Unusually for a journalism convening, Democracy Demo Day ended with practical, near-term commitments to some of the work at hand, including at least one family foundation seeking out multiple presenters to begin discussions about possible support, an offer of pro bono communications work for another a presenter from a PR firm and The Lenfest Institute itself announcing a new $75,000 grant to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to support legal assistance to newsrooms in Pennsylvania on election issues. 

In a tough moment for the news business, and widespread worries about the fate of the Republic, it was an inspiring meeting and a good day for hope. 

(AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

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