One of the oldest and most protected institutions of our country is at a cross-roads. The role of a free press in holding accountable those in powerful positions remains as important as ever, but the industry’s ability to do so is getting more and more difficult.
According to Pew Research, 126 daily newspapers that existed in 2004 are no longer in operation in the U.S., and the number of people working for newspapers have shrunk by 20,000 in the past two decades. Despite the newspaper publishing industry’s efforts to implement new revenue models as circulation continues to shrink, even digital advertising revenues continue to shrink, dropping another 2% in 2015.
But unlike many industries which shrink and disappear as they are replaced by newer inventions or industries, none of us can afford for the newspaper industry to disappear.
One of the most serious consequences of the faltering newspaper industry is the loss of one of our nation’s most important tools of democracy — the free press — and the role of the investigative journalist who digs below the surface to uncover the truth, questions the carefully crafted statements of those in the public eye and follow the trail of data and information to reveal dishonest, unethical and even criminal behavior.
Times When Journalists Exposed the Truth
The U.S. has a long history of reporters uncovering scandal, exposing criminals, and holding the government accountable.
Meatpacking Industry Exposed
In 1906, the meatpacking industry was exposed for its unsafe, unsanitary conditions for their immigrant workers thanks to the courage of a writer who went undercover inside a meat packing plant for seven weeks.
McCarthy’s False Allegations Refuted
It was because the Washington Post assigned a reporter to cover then-Senator McCarthy full time that the reporter was able to thoroughly investigate McCarthy’s claims against Army personnel and prove that they were false. It was also a Washington Post reporter who noticed that one of seven men arrested for breaking into the Watergate Hotel happened to be on the payroll of the President’s reelection committee and gained the support of his editors to investigate further. The newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the Watergate scandal which led to the indictments of 40 administration officials and resignation of President Nixon.
When NYT Refused to Stop Covering Vietnam
One U.S. President actually requested that The New York Times transfer their reporter stationed in Vietnam. The newspaper refused the request of John F. Kennedy, and their reporter continued to provide American readers with a different perspective than the one presented by the government.
These are only a few of the more memorable times when the value of having a free press was quite evident to the American public.
As the industry continues to shrink, it isn’t just that there are fewer reporters to investigate that is of concern. It is also that fewer of them work for powerful enough newspapers to be able to rely on their employers to protect them from financial and legal retribution when they do uncover and report on major scandals.
My Own POV as a Former Freelance Journalist
As citizens, we need to be concerned that there is often no one to question what is offered up as facts or even “alternative facts” by corporations and government officials, and with the limited bandwidth of many local papers, far too often the government’s and local businesses’ press releases are published verbatim without any due diligence, and there is no one available to question whether what is written is actually true.
And, just as we want the free press to hold accountable those in powerful positions, the press also needs to be held accountable for what they report. While the industry has always policed itself, in today’s world of real time, digital access to news, fact-checking and verification of sources can fall to the wayside in the rush to keep up with information, especially within emerging or ongoing situations.
Before launching a company, I spent ten years working as a freelance writer. During that entire time, I only had one editor who asked me to go out and find different people to interview when the ones I interviewed did not give quotes that aligned with this editor’s agenda for the story she wanted me to write. (I refused and never wrote for that publication again). But she was the only one out of ten years of writing for editors at the local, regional, state and national level.
The rest of my editors pushed me to dig deeper and held me to a very high standard of ethics — requiring more than one source as standard fact-checking and expecting me to research the claims made by the people I interviewed. I wasn’t allowed to write something as fact simply because the person I interviewed said it was true. I could quote them saying it was a fact, but I was still required to verify for myself whether it was or was not true — and to report the findings if they conflicted with the statements made.
What We Can Do
There is absolutely no place in government, in corporations or in journalism for “alternative facts”, and if we, as citizens, don’t push back and speak up about any attempt to control the message or limit access to information that is constitutionally protected, we will lose one of the most important tenets of our freedom — our right to question and hold accountable those who hold office, who hold wealth and who report the news.
If you are looking to support organizations who are working to fill the gaps in vetting the overload of information and data to protect our access to facts and not spin, I would highly recommend you consider the following:
“an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”
The Sunlight Foundation is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses technology, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all. Our vision is for technology to enable more complete, equitable and effective democratic participation. Our overarching goal is to achieve changes in the law to require real-time, online transparency for all government information. And, while our work began in 2006 with only a focus on the U.S. Congress, our open government work now takes place at the local, state, federal and international levels.
Originally published on Medium.