Published: Jan. 8, 2024

By Joe Arney

Here’s a quiz for all you politics junkies: When was the last time you read or watched a thoroughly reported story on the policy positions of one of the Republican primary candidates seeking the 2024 presidential nomination?

Don’t spend too much time thinking about it. The mainstream media has been far more likely to write about Joe Biden’s age or Ron DeSantis’ culture wars. And that worries one University of Colorado Boulder scholar who’s concerned about how journalists will cover the race.

“The U.S. news media has blood on its hands from 2016,” said Mike McDevitt, a former reporter and a professor of journalism at the College of Media, Communication and Information. “It will go down as one of the worst moments in the history of American journalism.” 

That’s because, he said, reporters and media outlets failed to consider their role as a political institution—the so-called Fourth Estate—and their responsibility to defend democracy against a rising tide of authoritarian thought. Oftentimes, the media inadvertently contributed to the normalization of extremism, by misreading their audiences or erring in how they balance their coverage of candidates. 

McDevitt pointed to a study of the 2016 election that found both candidates received the same amount of negative coverage. “You had a legitimate candidate playing by the rules of democracy, and an authoritarian,” he said. “We should be boycotting candidates who are authoritarian and anti-intellectual, and offering aggressive commentary to explain why.”

From paperboy to newsman 

McDevitt is a longtime news hound—he worked as a paperboy for the Los Altos Town Crier and Peninsula Times Tribune, in California, before reporting for them full-time early in his career—which feeds into his research into media and democracy. His work primarily looks at two interconnected threads—anti-intellectualism in U.S. media and its contribution to democratic backsliding, and a rise in authoritarian leanings among adolescents—which he explored in some depth in his 2020 book, Where Ideas Go to Die: The Fate of Intellect in American Journalism.

Headshot of Mike McDevittSome of the causes are familiar to anyone who studies the mass media’s woes—shorter attention spans in the age of social media, resource-strapped newsrooms, an emphasis on clicks at the cost of meaningful stories that educate readers, Gen Z’s distrust in institutions and frightening disengagement with the news.

“If the news media continue their fascination with anti-elitist elected officials—who make extreme statements and stoke culture wars—and don’t pay attention to policy, then it directly contributes to the dysfunction we’re seeing in Washington,” McDevitt said. “In terms of covering the nightmare we wake up to every morning, journalism is doing a good job. But it’s probably not how news media should operate as a political institution during an era of democratic backsliding.” 

That doesn’t mean journalism is helpless, and in fact, McDevitt said he’s seen some positive change. While cable news networks continue to lean on panels of pundits, more stations are replacing partisans with independent academic voices. And there is more collaboration among newsrooms, such as an August 2018 project where more than 300 newspapers published editorials on the same day denouncing the president’s description of the media as the enemy of the people.

“I know a lot of journalists would disagree with me, but I think news media in general should be less competitive amongst each other and find ways to collaborate, especially with the industry gutted,” he said. 

Avoiding groupthink, tropes

“In terms of covering the nightmare we wake up to every morning, journalism is doing a good job. But it’s probably not how news media should operate as a political institution during an era of democratic backsliding.”
Mike McDevitt, professor, journalism

One area to avoid collaboration, he said, is the groupthink that emerges when reporters subconsciously frame stories around tropes that perpetuate on the campaign trail, such as the year of the woman, or the election in which democracy recovers, or the year we need younger candidates.

He also wants to see reporters think more critically about their audiences. In 2016, journalists imagined a “populist, anti-elitist audience hungry for change, which helps explain the relentless negativity during the cycle,” he said. 

McDevitt is currently at work on another book exploring how to rethink journalism in an era of democratic backsliding. He’s looking at the increase in authoritarianism on school boards—like book bans, bathroom restrictions and masking—“and how reporters are covering them, because school board meetings used to be so boring. Not anymore.” 

He’s also curious to understand how the press understands its role in democratic backsliding, and how reporters feel they can turn the ship around—including their limits in doing so.

“These areas really pose an intellectual challenge for me,” the former newsman said. “If I want to be critical about journalism, I have to recognize that the cat is out of the bag—this authoritarian sentiment is out there and journalism can only do so much.”