Countering the big lie: WITF newsroom’s coverage will connect lawmakers with their election-fraud actions

  • Tim Lambert
  • Scott Blanchard/StateImpact Pennsylvania

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, WITF’s journalists worked to remind listeners and readers in story after story that results from Pennsylvania would take days to be finalized, and why that was the case.

Our goal was to prepare listeners for any disinformation or misinformation about the count and any attempts by President Donald Trump to claim victory before all the ballots were counted.

What we didn’t realize was that false claims of voter fraud would be amplified by the president’s allies in Congress, state legislatures, right-wing media and conspiracy theorists on social media.

What we didn’t realize was a large portion of the electorate would fall for this lie.

What we didn’t realize was elected leaders, who took an oath to uphold the laws of the United States, would actively work to overturn an election that county, state and federal judges and public officials of both political parties, and election experts, concluded was free and fair.

To be clear, all the false claims about Pennsylvania’s results were attacks on the truth. On democracy.

The constant drumbeat of falsehoods that the election was stolen came to a head on Jan. 6 with a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, as far-right extremists tried to halt the certification of President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory and overturn the results.

The attack’s purpose was to ignore the will of the people, throw out their votes and allow former President Trump to remain in power.

If it had succeeded, democracy would have failed. Some experts called the national security nightmare a coup.

The insurrection was the culmination of a lie that was allowed to fester and grow.

A lie that was pushed by several Republican members of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation and by many in the state legislature.

To be clear, all the false claims about Pennsylvania’s results were attacks on the truth.

On democracy.

On the work of dozens of journalists at WITF and across the state, who were doing on-the-ground reporting and talking with the county-level leaders who ran elections.

Those stories revealed the hard work of election workers to get it right, and that the election amid the coronavirus pandemic went smoothly, with no signs of massive fraud.

At WITF, our editors and journalists held dozens of discussions on how to counter the election-fraud lie with facts and original reporting.

Because of the unprecedented attack on an election and democracy, it’s important to discuss some of the basic facts:

  1. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania by more than 80,000 legally cast votes. Court challenges were dismissed for reasons including lack of evidence. In tossing out one case, conservative federal judge Stephanos Bibas wrote: “… calling an election unfair does not make it so.”
  2. Eight Pennsylvania congressmen supported Trump’s lies about election fraud and irregularities as he attempted to illegally retain power. Those lies led many to believe the election was stolen from Trump. After the insurrection at the Capitol to try to overthrow the U.S. electoral system, those eight lawmakers voted to nullify Pennsylvania’s election results.

So, as part of WITF’s commitment to factual reporting, and because many who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 have said their goal was to overthrow the U.S. electoral system and government, we will use language in our reporting to show how elected officials’ actions are connected to the election-fraud lie and the insurrection.

Here are two examples:

“Sen. (name), who signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence that would call those results into question, today introduced a bill …”

and

The congressmen who voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes are eight of the commonwealth’s nine GOP representatives. The one who did not vote for that is U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican who represents the Bucks County-based 1st Congressional District.

We understand this may be an unusual decision for a news organization to make. But, these are not normal times.

We are not taking this approach lightly, and will apply it for lawmakers who took at least one of these four actions: signed on to a Texas lawsuit aimed at invalidating Pennsylvania’s election; signed on to a state House or a state Senate letter urging Congressional representatives to object to or delay certification; and voted against certification. The list of lawmakers is here.

When using this language, we’ll consider whether the lawmaker has admitted their mistake, and how the language fits in to each particular story.

A reminder: Democrats objected to certification of certain electoral votes in 2005 and 2017. In 2005, a group of House Democrats objected to the counting of Ohio’s electoral votes. The objection was voted down. Four years ago, more than a half-dozen Democrats raised objections during the certification vote. No senators joined, so the objections went nowhere and Congress certified Donald Trump as president.

But, this year’s events differ in significant ways, because of how far the election-fraud lie was spread, without any legitimate proof. Here’s a breakdown of why.

We would like to emphasize our approach is based in fact and provides the proper context to the decisions made by Republican elected officials in the commonwealth.

This wasn’t a policy disagreement over taxes, abortion, or government spending.

This wasn’t lawmakers spinning an issue in their favor.

This was either knowingly spreading disinformation or outright lying by elected officials to overturn an election in an attempt to keep former President Trump in office.

This was an unprecedented assault on the fabric of American democracy.

To us, this is a matter of holding elected officials accountable for their actions.

We understand this may be an unusual decision for a news organization to make. But, these are not normal times. As disinformation and misinformation take more and more of a foothold in our social media feeds and dinner-table discussions, it is important for our journalists to adapt, as transparently as possible, to bring you the facts and not memory-hole the damage done to our democracy in the last three months.

It’s important to hear directly from those elected by you, the voters. So, we welcome any opportunity to sit down with any of the federal and state lawmakers who signed on to the election-fraud lie.

While we will not amplify lawmakers’ lies or misinformation, we will ask them to explain their positions in a civil, constructive conversation.

As always, we are available to answer your questions and address any thoughts or concerns you have. Email us at news@witf.org.

Support for WITF is provided by:

Become a WITF sponsor today »

Up Next
Politics & Policy

It's not just in Pennsylvania. State lawmakers are pushing to curb governors' virus powers