How journalists can spot the signs of autocracy — and help ward it off

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

They consulted the work of leading scholars who study the history of autocracy and democracy — people like Yale professor Timothy Snyder, who wrote “On Tyranny,” and Sheri Berman of Barnard College, who wrote “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe.” And they thought hard about how best to cover the threats they see on our own horizon.

By “threats to democracy,” they mean aggressive challenges, happening now, to the free and fair way we govern our nation. Those include everything from the spread of baseless claims about rampant election fraud to state legislatures’ efforts to make it more difficult to vote and easier for partisans to overturn legitimate voting results. They include efforts to install state officials far less upstanding than Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who refused to comply when then-President Donald Trump insisted he “find” nonexistent votes after losing the 2020 election. And, lest we forget, a violent mob invading the Capitol in an attempt to intimidate members of Congress while threatening to hang the vice president.

The result is a 28-page publication called “The Authoritarian Playbook: A Media Guide,” an effort to give reporters and editors some tools in recognizing what’s happening and in covering it effectively.

While the guide is intended for journalists, every American would benefit from reading it — especially in conjunction with the House committee hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Together, the hearings and the report make for the startlingly loud wake-up call that we all need.

“Democratic backsliding happens step by step, not all at once,” Jennifer Dresden, a political scientist and the report’s lead author, told me. Or, as the report puts it, “By using ‘salami tactics,’ slicing away at democracy a sliver at a time, modern authoritarians still cement themselves in power, but they do so incrementally and gradually.”

That’s why the 28-page report dives into how Hungary, for example, has moved steadily toward becoming a more authoritarian state. It also offers case studies of what has happened in the Philippines, Russia, Venezuela and India.

The Jan. 6 hearing was horrifying. It also gave me hope.

It’s not always easy to distinguish garden-variety politics from encroaching authoritarianism, Dresden notes. Yet what the playbook identifies as the seven characteristics of a democracy under strain will sound mighty familiar to those who have been paying attention.

Here’s what those who are pursuing power in authoritarian ways do:

They attempt to politicize independent institutions. They spread disinformation. They aggrandize executive power at the expense of checks and balances. They quash criticism and dissent. They specifically target vulnerable or marginalized communities. They work to corrupt elections. They stoke violence.

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

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

The Washington Post established a democracy team months ago as it beefed up its coverage of similar issues. And Joe Kahn, the new editor of the New York Times, told Vanity Fair that “we have to cover, intensively, the ongoing threat to democratic integrity.”

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

For example, in covering the weakening of checks and balances, do the following: Rigorously investigate violations of those laws designed to limit executive power, such as the Hatch Act and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Avoid “political intrigue stories” that overstate dysfunction and chaos and too often have the accidental effect of making voters warm to the idea of an executive power grab.

The report urges journalists not to unwittingly help spread disinformation. Don’t magnify political lies by repeating them in headlines. Beware of the “illusory truth effect,” in which disinformation can be spread inadvertently by stories that seek to debunk it. Instead, investigate disinformation as a story, looking at the systems, motives, funding, mechanisms and actors behind it.

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

I’ve been writing for many months about the importance of focusing news coverage on growing threats to American democracy, and, several weeks ago, I had a chance to get an early look at the media guide.

I asked Dresden how she thinks the press is doing in covering these threats, and how despairing or hopeful she is.

She told me she has seen plenty of “tremendous work” that she admires, as well as instances in which journalists fail to provide enough context, or where they repeat disinformation, or concentrate too much on political intrigue rather than what’s beneath the surface.

As for her forecast for democracy in America, it’s mixed.

“I’m very worried, 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 hard to right the ship.”

The report calls for journalists to play a role in doing that — not through direct political involvement but by remaining acutely aware of the warning signs and clearly communicating them to the public.

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