The past year has made it clear that access to accurate, trustworthy news can be a matter of life or death, as indicated by reporting on the pandemic, as well as the claims of election fraud promoted by Donald Trump, QAnon, and others, which precipitated the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that left five dead and more than 100 people injured.
When we hear calls for a return to normalcy, we need to ask, “Return to what?” and “Whose ‘normal’?” Do we yearn for a return to neoliberal, top-down control with widening wealth gaps, social unrest, continued destruction of the environment, and divisive media and propaganda? Or do we want a genuinely new normal based on democratic principles of inclusion and equality, both of which require a vigilant and truly free press?
Decades ago, when there were only three major television networks, America’s top news anchors used to sign off their broadcasts with statements that did little to encourage critical analysis of the day’s news and how the networks reported it. In the 1950s, pioneering CBS anchor Edward R. Murrow ended his broadcasts by wishing his audience “Good night, and good luck.” A generation later, CBS’s Walter Cronkite regularly signed off by asserting, “And that’s the way it is.” Given the challenges facing the American public today, we need more than salutary phrases that promote passive acceptance of what passes for the news. We need the perspective and the tools to ask of our news sources, “Is that the way it is?”
It is a genuine challenge to convince people to consider news they are disinclined to trust for ideological reasons, even when such reporting is based on well-founded evidence. To foster that attitude toward news, we need critical media literacy education and a more robust and diverse independent press committed to journalistic ethics and reporting in the public interest.
Promoting Ethical Journalism
The Society of Professional Journalists reminds us that journalists should seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. As Danielle McLean, chair of the SPJ’s ethics committee, notes in her foreword to State of the Free Press 2022, “We need to stop chasing ratings and meaningless clickbait headlines, stop treating politics like celebrity gossip and elections like popularity polls, demand change from the corporate boards and hedge funds that run news outlets without caring about the free press, and turn our focus toward the kind of journalism that our society deserves.” But McLean’s suggested remedy for today’s media malaise goes further, noting, “At their best, journalism and those who practice it have kept the powerful honest, held elected officials accountable for their actions and abuses of power, and revealed the complex causes of and solutions for societal ills, such as poverty, housing insecurity, inequality, and public health crises.”
In the same spirit, Ralph Nader, who warned against the threats posed by the Telecommunications Act back in 1996, continues to fight for press freedoms and investigative reporting in the public interest, most recently with his initiative Reporters’ Alert: Fresh Ideas for Journalists, which provides working leads for journalists by highlighting underreported news stories. Other long-standing organizations, such as the Freedom of the Press Foundation, support bold reporting by offering guides and training on security and privacy risks, knowledge crucial to the protection of journalists in dangerous times. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense project goes still further, supplying practical tools to promote as much security as possible for online communications.
A truly free press is only possible when journalists and sources are free from the threat of violence, arrest, surveillance, or retaliation from the people and institutions they scrutinize, making safety and privacy no less paramount to healthy media than the truthfulness and substantiality of the stories reported.
Journalism as a Public Good
A further important step toward reviving trust in news media would be the creation of a nonprofit, publicly funded media system, reframing journalism as a public utility and promoting it as a common good rather than a societal luxury that only matters to select subgroups of the public. Such a step would necessarily entail confronting widespread prejudices against journalism. As Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff noted in a June 2021 Columbia Journalism Review article, although Americans seem united in the belief that “democracy requires a free and functional press,” they don’t seem interested in funding it. Pickard and Neff observed how anemic financial support for news media is in the United States compared with other major democratic countries, noting that “if the US spent just 0.02 percent of its GDP, it would generate $4.5 billion for public media infrastructure that could serve local communities’ information needs.”
Getting newsrooms out from under the management of hedge funds, tech billionaires, and other corporate conglomerates and into the hands of citizen-activists providing oversight for the proper reporting and representation of crucial community issues would be game-changing to the practice and consumption of journalism, promoting real trust and engagement in news through the active participation of the people it serves.
Critical Media Literacy and Standing Up for Reporting That Matters
Finally, we need to accelerate efforts to teach critical media literacy to all Americans, from early education into adulthood. The work of organizations such as the Critical Media Project, the Propwatch Project, and Project Censored provide crucial resources to achieve this goal, but, as with Pickard and Neff’s vital proposals for public media funding, supporting critical media literacy education at a national scale requires substantial financial support independent of corporate sources that would inevitably compromise its critical rigor.
The importance of free speech and expression embodied in a free press protected by the First Amendment are foundational to democracy and our entire way of life. We deviate from them at our peril. In our push to return to normalcy, we must seriously deliberate what freedom of expression really looks and sounds like in practice, which existing institutions provide for it, and how we can transform the ones that don’t.
As journalism is under threat from corporate consolidation, Big Tech censorship, governmental surveillance, police violence, and distrust from a divided public, it is up to us to stand up for reporting that matters; to protest against hyperpartisan misrepresentation and untruths; to demand de-monopolization, regulation, and security for our communication platforms; to envision new systems to support the news media we need; and to fight back against unjust and oppressive measures that privilege the powerful while spying on and punishing watchdogs, whistleblowers, and truth-tellers.
Business as usual won’t save journalism, just as clickbait and skewed stories won’t suffice to heal the wounds of the pandemic or the impoverishment and neglect that led to it hitting some of us so unequally and so hard. The future of journalism depends upon our active engagement as citizens, no less than the future of democracy depends upon a truly independent, ethical, and uncompromising free press—reporting not for the profits of the few, but selflessly in the true interest of the undivided public.
This adapted excerpt from Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022 (The Censored Press and Seven Stories Press, 2022) appears with permission of the publishers.
Andy Lee Roth is the associate director of Project Censored, where he coordinates the Project’s Campus Affiliates Program, a news media research network of several hundred students and faculty at two dozen colleges and universities across North America.
Mickey Huff is the director of Project Censored and co-editor, with Andy Lee Roth, of State of the Free Press 2022. He is also the co-author, with Nolan Higdon, of United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (City Lights, 2019).