Safeguarding the Peaceful Transfer of Power: Pro-Democracy Electoral Frames and Journalist Coverage of Election Deniers During the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections

Heesoo Jang, Daniel Kreiss

The International Journal of Press/Politics

Mis/Disinformation, Political Processes

(Research Summary by Katherine Furl) 

Recent upticks in election denial highlight journalism’s role in alerting the public to the risks such denials pose to the peaceful transfer of political power and to democracy itself. In “Safeguarding the Peaceful Transfer of Power: Pro-Democracy Electoral Frames and Journalist Coverage of Election Deniers During the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections,” recently published in the International Journal of Press/Politics, Hesoo Jang and Daniel Kreiss analyze national and local news coverage of 2022 U.S. midterm elections with politicians denying the results of the 2020 Presidential election on the ballot, finding that journalists repeatedly fail to direct public attention to how election denial undermines the legitimacy of the electoral process.  

Jang and Kreiss develop a new framework to assess journalism’s role in protecting democratic institutions, introducing the concept of “democracy-framed electoral coverage.” For electoral coverage to be considered democracy-framed, Jang and Kreiss assert it must go beyond merely mentioning political candidates’ election denialism. Democracy-framed electoral coverage must also “positio[n] election denial as a violation of democratic norms with deleterious implications for democracy...fundamentally different from other campaign issues.” Jang and Kreiss consider democracy-framed electoral coverage a core responsibility for journalists to uphold—without alerting the public to anti-democratic threats, journalism risks tacitly consolidating power among anti-democratic political leaders. 

Using the 2022 U.S. midterm elections as a case, Jang and Kreiss analyzed of over 700 national and local news articles covering elections with 2020 election deniers on the ballot to determine if, and when, journalists employed democracy-framed electoral coverage. Across these articles, Jang and Kreiss found limited use of pro-democracy electoral frames. Even strong statements asserting denial was untrue (which fall short of democracy-facing electoral coverage, but at least attempt to counter blatant falsehoods) were less common than weak statements simply mentioning election denialism without attempting to correct it. Journalists rarely consulted election administrators, despite their nonpartisan role in ensuring secure and fair elections.  

Jang and Kreiss additionally interviewed twelve journalists from local, state, and national news outlets to better understand the dearth of democracy-framed electoral coverage. These journalists very rarely considered that election denialism and other falsehoods could be employed in strategic bids for political power. Given threats to democracy posed by election denialism and other similar surges in anti-democratic rhetoric, Jang and Kreiss urge future research to interrogate the jouranlism’s responsibility to alert the public to these and other anti-democratic threats, in the United States and across the globe.