Journalism and Democracy 2022-2023

Journalism and Democracy

Our halting emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with the shocking discovery that the United States is fighting to preserve its democracy. Not striving to perfect its Union, not straining to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice, but struggling to keep elections running and civil liberties intact. Covid-19 slowed our world down enough to reveal the stagnant inequalities, growing polarization, backsliding democratic institutions, and retreating federal government that weigh heavily on American political life today.     

Unfortunately, the increasingly beleaguered state of democracy in the United States is far from exceptional. In the German and French parliaments, the cordon sanitaire keeping nearly 100 far-right deputies out of each governing majority is fraying. In Italy, the heirs of the fascist party stand on the brink of power. In Tunisia, a new President has snuffed out the lone parliamentary democracy in the Arab world. In Eastern Europe, Russia has invaded and occupied the fledgling democracy of Ukraine.

These crises in global democracy have complex and multifaceted origins. Nevertheless, it is rare that so many international leaders agree upon a common culprit: the threat to credible sources of news and information. The same on-line platforms that were employed to foment a Green Revolution in Iran and to topple authoritarians during the Arab Spring were later weaponized against the US electorate and then the Congress itself -- acts repeated elsewhere and often. Meanwhile, the shift to Twitter and Facebook has also threatened the shoe-leather reporters at publishers with “obsolete” economic models and “outmoded” ways of gathering news. Worldwide, there are increasing obstacles to reliable political communication, and breaking through disinformation and distrust in politics, science, and institutions has become ever more difficult.

Conversely, as our polities stand at a crossroads between constitutional and personal rule, with precious individual freedoms hanging in the balance, journalists may well contribute to the salvation of democracy. Though today we may think of them primarily as political fact-checkers, journalists’ democratic role has never been limited to that. Investigative reporters turn a spotlight on abuses of power that governments fail to detect, and that other civil society groups-- from churches to athletic associations to film sets–are often unable, or unwilling, to resolve. News outlets provide space to debate reforms and remedies for what ails the body politic. More broadly, democratic societies depend on the press to hold the powerful to account, keep their citizens informed, and keep the processes of democratic communication and deliberation alive. As Michael Luo wrote in a 2020 New Yorker essay, “Any hope of halting [the decline of truth in American democracy] must begin with a renewal of journalism’s commitment to its public responsibility, and with an examination of how its methods might best adapt.”

But what would such a renewal of the democratic press, and the wider public sphere, look like? And what efforts–by journalists, scholars, civil society actors, and political leaders–are needed to make it a reality? It was questions such as these that inspired the choice of “Journalism and Democracy” as the annual theme for my first year as Director of the Clough Center.

Through the Center’s programming this year, the Boston College community will have the opportunity to engage in conversation with renowned scholars, and practitioners, of journalism. Our academic calendar is bookended by a major fall panel event on “Renewing Journalism, Restoring Democracy” and a three-day spring symposium in March exploring the same topic from many angles, with other exciting events in between. Likewise, this year’s class of Clough Fellows will revisit these themes in seminars throughout the year, and begin crafting articles for our annual publication, to appear in Spring 2023. The fellows were drawn from across the University, and from fields as diverse as English and Neuroscience, Sociology and Theology. They will bring their unique disciplinary perspectives to explore these questions together.

At this crucial moment in the life of our democracy, these conversations could scarcely be more urgent, or more challenging. We hope you will join us for our year-long exploration of “Journalism and Democracy.”