May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. Also known as World Press Day, it was established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in December 1993 to recognize and celebrate the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, the first international statement of press freedom. World Press Freedom Day calls upon nations to reflect on and improve their media and journalistic freedoms.
The First Amendment demands that the United States of America must have a free press. James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers, once wrote, “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” The power of free press has been recognized as a cornerstone of democracy in the U.S. since the nation’s birth in 1776.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is an international, not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. They believe the freedoms of expression and information are the most important freedoms inherent to humanity. RSF protects these freedoms so journalists may inform the public and act as the ultimate check to the power of governments. Annually, the RSF publishes the World Press Freedom Index, a list of the world’s nations ranked by the freedoms allowed to their media.
The U.S. ranks 48th in the World Press Freedom Index for 2019, down from 45th last year and 43rd in 2017. This steady decline of the freedom of press in the U.S is abhorrent. However, the damages to freedom do not stem from restrictive legislation. President Trump’s crusade against the media and the popular perception of the media do more damage to the press’ power than any laws on the books.
President Trump is actively harming media credibility. Reporters gain access to the White House based on how nice they are to the president; favorable journalists are allowed in, while those who challenge Trump’s policy, such as Jim Acosta, have their credentials revoked. When stories paint him in a negative light, his cries of fake news erode the media’s integrity and shift the blame. He suggests violence against journalists and reporters from his Twitter account, and has tweeted that the media is “the true enemy of the people.” However, President Trump is only part of the media’s problems. The impact of his actions are a symptom of weakened trust in journalism, not the primary cause.
The Columbia Journalism Review recently ran a poll to determine how people view the makings of journalism. This included how well people believe the press actually reports the truth on matters. The results showed that the people have more confidence in Congress than they do in the press. The poll also showed a perception of dishonesty, bias, purchased stories and failure to check facts before sending stories to print. This is a massive problem for an industry whose job is to bring information to the public. There is no reason for the people to protect the freedoms of the press if the people do not believe that the press uses its freedoms with integrity.
Restoring the media’s freedoms should start from within. A Gallup poll from 2018 gave many insights into how trust can be regained. Accuracy and perceived bias are a large part of what caused trust issues in readers. Bias is especially problematic, as readers sometimes imprint their own biases onto stories, often subconsciously. This increases the priority that journalists and editors give to checking their sources and facts before sending any story to print. Incorrect or false comments made in articles that naturally attract bias, such as political articles, amplify the biased perception of an unbiased news source.
The poll also discovered that transparency is a key factor in restoring trust and reducing bias, which can be accomplished by opening up the process of news and allowing the public to look into everything, from funding to editing.
An important point of contention that all media must address is the usage of anonymous sources. The CJR media trust survey showed that 41 percent of readers lost trust in an article if it contained an anonymous source. However, anonymous sources must exist. They protect the source and journalist alike, and allow for communication without fear of reprisal in sensitive situations. To wit, 49 U.S. states have specific laws, called shield laws, in place to protect the confidentiality between reporter and source. However, how anonymous sources are presented has to change.
Another important step toward restoring trust in media is one journalists must take on their own. Journalists must actually defend themselves. The LSU study found that media trust only increased when the journalists vigorously defended the stories, instead of ignoring detractors. The facts of the story did not matter, as readers considered the sheer number of unanswered accusations as confirmation of the accusations themselves. Journalists and the news outlets they work for must take an active role in proving their integrity in today’s world of comment sections.
Media’s failures in the U.S. are not permanent. A September 2018 Gallup poll shows, of those who do not trust the press, 60 percent believe their faith can be restored. The 2018 Gallup poll referenced earlier suggests a positive outlook for trust in journalism. Trust in the press has increased from an all-time low of 32 percent in 2016 to 45 percent trust in 2018. It is time for everyone from reporters to editors to stand together to prove their integrity and preserve the freedoms of the press.