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Journalism is a Cornerstone of Democracy

Date: July 6, 2023

Julie Pace

Vice President and Executive Editor, The Associated Press

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As America wraps up its Independence Day celebrations, it is the perfect time to take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate the essential role journalism plays in upholding American democracy — and the role philanthropy has to play in supporting both.

Independent journalism provides citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions about policies that directly impact their lives. A free press holds political leaders accountable and serves as a check on the people and institutions in power. And those essential functions endure regardless of which political party holds power.

As an independent, nonpartisan, fact-based news organization, The Associated Press has played a unique and fundamental role in American democracy for the better part of two centuries.

In 1848, it was the AP who declared Zachary Taylor president of the United States. That’s because there was no single entity that tabulated the votes and told the country who had won — and there still isn’t. With no national governing body to oversee elections — every state runs its own process — it’s The Associated Press that has continued to count the vote and declare election winners. It’s the single largest act of journalism there is.

With political reporters based across the country — and journalists on the ground in all 50 states — AP has an unparalleled footprint when it comes to election-related coverage. But beyond our reporting, we also have a full-time team of election researchers who are experts on the ins and outs of each state’s election process as well as an expert team of race callers who have unmatched election knowledge.

Every election cycle, AP’s vast election operation tallies the vote in thousands of national, state, and local races in every state — with myriad checks to ensure the data provided to our thousands of customers is correct. In 2020, AP was over 99.9 percent accurate in calling U.S. races, and 100 percent accurate in calling the presidential and congressional races for each state, and was 99.9 percent accurate in its race calls in the 2022 midterm elections.

In 2024, the AP will declare winners in over 7,000 races up and down the ballot in all 50 states. We’re the definitive source that fellow news outlets, the public and, ultimately, the world turn to for trusted results.

Trust is thus a crucial part of journalism, and especially of election coverage. Yet the rise of misinformation and swirling hyper-partisanship have eroded the public’s trust in news. This is a troubling trend, and news organizations should not only recognize the urgency of regaining the public’s trust, but also take steps to earn it: by showing our work, being transparent about what we don’t know and, above all else, reporting the facts without fear or favor.

The philanthropic world shares these values and so many others that are key to a functioning and flourishing democracy. From supporting civic education and voter engagement to promoting volunteerism and civil discourse, philanthropic investments have contributed to a functioning democracy in many ways.

I know firsthand how philanthropic support has allowed the AP to expand its coverage of democracy issues. With support from several foundations, AP has built out a sweeping democracy initiative to help an increasingly polarized public better understand their government. Our growing team has emphasized explanatory storytelling for digital audiences, tackling topics like voting patterns and voting access, election administration, disenfranchised groups and so much more. Importantly, philanthropic funding has also allowed us to do deeper research into media practices that polarize audiences, and identify solutions to both bridge societal divides and engage weary citizens. And, because of our role as a news cooperative, we are in a position to share not only the journalism but also our learnings with our members.

Work like this is expensive, and as we’ve seen in recent years, it is cheaper and easier to produce misinformation that spreads across social media than it is to do deep, accurate, and impactful reporting. In an age in which facts are often questioned, news organizations must work harder to earn — and deserve — the trust of their audiences.

Philanthropic support is crucial in helping address such challenges, especially when the public good is in jeopardy. Independent news outlets face strong headwinds in our work to create an information environment that allows democracy to thrive. This is why there is perhaps no more urgent time to double down on our shared commitment.

Like many of you, I have witnessed the profound impact journalism can have on people, institutions, and nations. Together we can work to make sure that a free and independent press endures. The founding fathers enshrined this right in the Constitution. Now it is our turn to ensure that independent journalism, a key pillar of democracy, can not only survive, but thrive.

This is the third post in a series from The Associated Press looking at the impact of philanthropy on journalism organizations and how grants can be been structured with integrity to advance each party’s mission.

Julie Pace is senior vice president and executive editor of The Associated Press. Previously, she was Washington Bureau Chief for AP, directing AP’s coverage of the presidency, politics, and the U.S. government. Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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