Freedom of the Press Requires Good Reporting

Before our Constitution was written, American colonists had a little-known battle over the role of the press. In 1733, John Peter Zenger started publishing true but unflattering accounts about William Cosby, the governor of New York. Cosby didn’t like this and had him charged with libel. The judge tried his best to have Zenger found guilty but the jury was having none of it and refused to convict him. They recognized that speaking truth to power is a critical weapon in the fight for liberty and justice. Our Founding Fathers knew that too. That’s why the very first right listed in the Constitution – the First Amendment – is one detailing freedom of the press.

For the longest time, our press has indeed been free. It has been free to question, investigate, and, most of all, inform. Journalists have been responsible for stories that have led to significant change, from Nellie Bly’s exposé of an insane asylum in 1887 to Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of the Watergate scandal in 1972 to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team’s 2003 reveal of systemic child sex abuse by Catholic priests. These stories prove that good journalism requires reporting that is objective, aggressive and irrefutable.

Unfortunately, recent challenges have made good journalism more difficult than ever before. Corporate takeovers have limited which topics get covered. This is the reason we don’t hear about the many global environmental crises (check out An Inconvenient Sequel to see what you’ve missed), corporate and government malfeasance or know more about what’s going on in other countries (as it turns out, a lot!).

Corporations decreased funding for investigative journalism, they dictate the ways in which stories are covered, and follow profit instead of truth. Greed is why infotainment – the blending of information and entertainment – rules the day. But even worse is the how Big Money has started silencing critics. If you want to be really scared about the future of our First Amendment, watch Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press. The documentary looks at two instances in which billionaires sought control – through the courts and through takeover – over the reporters who served as watchdogs . It’s chilling. All of this has made our press less free because their objectivity has been compromised.

But the problems aren’t just in the big scoops either. It’s also in the little stuff. Take a recent article in the Dallas Morning News about a contentious city council meeting in McKinney Texas. [Full disclosure: I was present at that meeting and am quoted in the article.] The article spent a lot of time covering the basics of what occurred but important details were missing.

The meeting was antagonistic because La’Shadion Shemwell, a black city council member, alleged that he was racially profiled during a recent traffic stop. The reporter dutifully mentioned this but failed to provide context for that allegation. No information was given about any statistics McKinney Police Department might have on the racial composition of its traffic tickets and arrests. If such statistics don’t exist, it would be important to know why such easily attainable and relevant information isn’t being tracked. Nor would a reader of the article have any clue that many of the citizens who spoke in support of Mr. Shemwell were people of color who offered their own stories of racial profiling by the police. In fact, if you just went by the article, you might reasonably conclude that only two people spoke in support of him when the actual number was closer to 20. I would expect a story on an allegation of racial profiling might lead to digging about whether this occurs on a regular basis. But it didn’t.

Other pertinent details were absent as well. The article quoted Mandy Wilkerson, wife of the arresting officer, who said that she questioned whether her family was safe yet the reporter didn’t add that Ms. Wilkerson seemed to retract this by saying that the city had rallied around them. If the officer’s family did receive threats, this would be relevant to the story as would the threats to Mr. Shemwell which were mentioned during the meeting but not reported. Similarly, the article stated that the room was packed but didn’t describe the audience. The fact that police officers in blue and brown t-shirts were a huge presence ringing a room that contained a number of people of color there to discuss racial profiling would’ve underscored the palpable tension in the meeting. Nor was there any analysis as to how this situation corresponds with what’s been happening with race relations across the country. One of the speakers even brought up the political climate yet this too was ignored.

Given all the holes in the story, it doesn’t appear that the reporting was very objective, aggressive or irrefutable. Journalists aren’t supposed to just repeat what people say but instead determine if it’s true. They’re expected to look at the larger picture and ask questions in order to give the public the whole story, not just what those in power want us to believe. Yet this is what happens all too often, especially at the local level. If our press is to truly be free, articles like this must be better. Journalists must speak truth to power or else corruption, injustice and servitude will rule the day. John Peter Zenger was willing to go to prison to preserve journalistic integrity and liberty. We should do no less.

Share Your Thoughts