Recommendations for Media Covering the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

President Trump has lost both the popular vote and the Electoral College. And yet, the president and many of his Republican allies are refusing to accept the declared outcome of a free and fair election. 

We should be prepared for this. President Trump and other GOP elites were questioning the results in the days and weeks as voters were going to the polls. The president and members of his party falsely claimed that there is significant and widespread voter fraud through illegal mail-in ballots, and had already stated that the election would be illegitimate if the president didn’t win. President Trump called on supporters to monitor the polls independently from established rules around poll watching, and in the lead up to Election Day on multiple occasions the president refused to commit to accepting the results of the 2020 election and to a peaceful transition of power. The president and members of his party made their intent to not accept any outcome other than a second term for the president very clear.

Now we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation where the results of the election are clear but the losing candidate has not conceded.  Professional news organizations bear a particularly important responsibility to help the public navigate what are a confusing barrage of false claims about the nature of the election. We recommend the following steps to center verifiable information, highlight the established processes by which ballots were cast and counted, and uphold democratic norms.

How to cover post-election civil unrest?

People in the U.S. have a fundamental First Amendment right to express, argue, pursue, and defend their ideas, individually or collectively. At times, protests can become more disorderly, moving beyond expression to the point that they become a public safety concern, what we call civil disturbance and unrest. We must face the possibility that the 2020 U.S. election results will prompt civil unrest because one of the candidates does not accept the results, because the results themselves remain uncertain for days or weeks and partisans will seek the results they desire, or simply because some Americans will disagree with real or predicted outcomes. As these events play out, our scholarly community believes the news media will have a consequential role in upholding free and fair elections and easing domestic tensions.

Help Americans understand the roots of unrest.

The 2020 presidential elections are taking place during an unprecedented period of uncertainty. The COVID-19 global pandemic has disrupted the social and economic lives of much of the county. The American public is experiencing polarization across many dimensions including race and ethnicity, nationality, religion, political affiliation, and geography. And, the President and members of his administration and party are stoking concerns about electoral malfeasance and amplifying lines of social division. This leaves individuals on all sides to fight against a perceived injustice providing a setting where Americans may not accept the outcome of the presidential election in November leading to potentially violent civil unrest.

Uphold democratic norms.

The U.S. Constitution is clear that the “The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.” News coverage should unambiguously and repeatedly remind the public of that fact, and explain how the Electoral College works and electors are chosen in the states. Between now and the election, journalists should ask those holding elected office and those on the ballot of their intentions to support a peaceful transfer of power. Journalists should underscore that the presidential candidate with a losing number of Electoral College votes should concede. If results are in question, call on candidates to publicly address their supporters about the explicit process for reviewing ballots, urge a calm and orderly process of certifying the election through institutional means, and promise to concede if the results are not in their favor. State frequently and clearly that public opinion demonstrates an expectation for the peaceful transfer of power. The Constitution is equally clear that citizens have the right to speak, write and assemble peaceably when they object to government action. Do not run unfounded claims that the exercise of these rights is “unpatriotic” or “unAmerican,” even if those claims are made by a prominent source. Draw clear lines between peaceful protest and any violence that may be related in time but not in cause. 

Use clear definitions for actions and actors and provide coverage appropriate to those definitions.

For example, there is a difference between paramilitary groups and citizen protestors, so consider specific terminology, such as avoiding the phrase ‘militia’ when ‘domestic terror groups’ is more appropriate. Clearly call out state violence and obfuscation by law enforcement entities whose actions run counter to public accountability or service and directly call out any racial bias, racism, or discriminatory actions in the treatment of protesters. Resist framing unrest as the clash between Side A and Side B. Instead, seek expertise to put protests or civil unrest in context. Use specific details, such as the estimated number of protestors on varying sides, in how many cities, and for how many days. Journalists can put local protests in a broader national context by noting how many protests are occurring in other cities. 

Do not give a platform to individuals or groups who call for violence, spread disinformation, or foment racist ideas.

Covering various consequential actors across the political spectrum is important during a disputed election process. However, individuals and groups should not be given a free means of amplification to promote their agenda or ideas, including any candidate tweets or statements that call for violence, spread disinformation, or promote racist rhetoric. The First Amendment protections of free speech do not extend to incitement of imminent violence.