Republican presidential candidates and anti-racism protesters at Mizzou don’t agree on much. Yet both made news recently by confronting journalists. Intentionally or not, they raised similar, significant questions about press freedom — and responsibility.
For journalists, it’s tempting to conclude that if you’re being criticized from opposite sides, you must be doing things right. It’s not that simple. Let’s break down the issues and look at what’s at stake — for reporters and for the public we are supposed to serve.
First, press freedom. This week, protesters tried to block photographer Tim Tai from shooting images of them and their tent compound on the Mizzou campus.
The First Amendment’s protection for freedom of expression is clear, and Tai had the presence of mind to explain it succinctly to the protesters in his face: It protects their right to be there — and his. In our democracy, the flow of ideas and information can be cacophonous, unruly, even wildly inaccurate. But it must be unfettered, because we trust citizens — not government — to sort truth from trash.
Video of the Mizzou incident spread quickly, drawing harsh criticism of the protesters and of university personnel who were involved in the obstruction. The next day, protesters reversed course and said reporters would be welcome; the university employees apologized. Press freedom prevailed.
Republicans raised a different kind of challenge to press freedom following the recent CNBC debate. They criticized the moderators, then threatened to assert more control over them by rewriting the debate rules. Ultimately, rival political camps couldn’t agree. Press freedom prevailed.
But what about press responsibility? The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee it, or even require it. Yet responsible reporting is as crucial as press freedom to maintaining the health of our democracy.
Both the protesters and the Republicans argue that journalists have behaved irresponsibly.
Specifically, Republicans candidates say that many of the questions they face — in the debate and otherwise — are frivolous and insulting, undermining serious consideration of the contenders and issues. These critics join a long line of politicians who have avoided questions by attacking the questioners and who have built public support by playing to public suspicion of the press.
Journalists often dismiss this political tactic as self-serving, and it is. But news organizations should also ponder why it’s so effective. Perhaps public trust has been squandered by too much attention to news that doesn’t matter.
Perhaps people feel their own stories and concerns have been missed or misrepresented. Anti-racism protesters can point to a long track record of mainstream media missing or misrepresenting the experiences and concerns of African Americans.
For those who feel aggrieved, digital media now provide alternative means to tell their own stories. Candidates do it with sophisticated messaging strategies. But social media afford outlets to anyone. At Mizzou, football players used Twitter to share the pivotal news that they would boycott team activities in support of a hunger striker seeking the resignation of university system president Timothy M. Wolfe.
In theory, democratization of the media can strengthen public discourse, giving everyone the chance to reach anyone with thoughts and ideas. In practice, the flood of information allows people to indulge the natural human tendency to seek information that reinforces what we already think and to avoid uncomfortable questions.
Of course it's important for people to be able to tell their own stories and to seek whatever information interests them. But it's also important — especially when public officials and public issues are involved — to raise tough questions and to challenge unexamined assumptions.
That's what responsible reporters do. That's why the First Amendment guarantees their right to do it. That's why we all have a stake in maintaining a healthy news ecosystem that is both free and responsible.