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Editor's Weekly: On July 4, celebration and concern for our free press

Fireworks, fourth of july, reflected, horizontal, arch
File Photo | Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon

Journalists can be an irreverent lot, yet most of us believe devoutly in the sanctity of the First Amendment. The Fourth of July is its holy day, and we are its acolytes. But this year, the celebration of a free press ought to be tempered with doses of concern and reality.

The First Amendment’s ringing declaration of rights guarantees a level of free expression for Americans that few other countries enjoy. But there are some things the First Amendment does not guarantee, and they matter in ways that were striking this year.

The First Amendment does not guarantee any news organization a right to financial success. This year, financial pressures continued to force cuts in many newsrooms, including another round of layoffs announced last week at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment does not guarantee that news organizations will use their scarce resources to tackle tough issues. In fact, many newsrooms substitute sizzle for substance.

Resource-hungry public service journalism is especially difficult to sustain. In sprawling, subdivided regions such as St. Louis, watchdog reporting and exploration of community issues pose special challenges. As events in Ferguson reminded St. Louisans, serious problems can simmer for years without drawing widespread interest, then boil over with despair and frustration.

The First Amendment does not guarantee that citizens will pay attention to responsible reporting even if it is produced. At any given second, myriad options are competing for your interest. Many are more fun than a slog through a regional issue. But what grabs your attention first may not satisfy your need for knowledge long term.

At St. Louis Public Radio, we try to provide news that matters in ways that attract AND nourish. You can help.

You as engaged citizens play a growing role in the news ecosystem that informs us all. Some do it directly by posting what you see or know. As Ferguson demonstrated so forcefully, Tweets, videos and livestreaming by participants shaped public understanding and influenced events -- often more quickly than professional reporters could respond.

Some citizens play a role indirectly, magnifying the impact of others’ reports by deciding what to share through social media and email.

Just as news organizations must honestly come to grips with our mistakes and shortcomings, engaged citizens might do some soul-searching about their own media standards and behavior. If you value thoughtful reporting, then seek it out, share it, practice it and support those who do.

Ferguson gave St. Louisans a crash course on the state of our free press. The national and international scrum of reporters that materialized here proved more adept at parachuting in to cover conflict than at sticking around to see how or whether it will be resolved.

But for those of us at St. Louis Public Radio, St. Louis is home. We've chosen We Live Here as the name and spirit for our ongoing podcast and project that began in response to Ferguson. We hope it will draw all who live here together in deeper common understanding of the underlying issues of race, class and power that set the fuse on the explosion last August.

This Fourth of July, we’re thankful for the rights the First Amendment secures. We’re grateful to have the organizational stability and sense of mission the First Amendment does not guarantee. We're hopeful you’ll join us in exercising the responsibility the First Amendment implies to inform each other with independence, credibility and courage.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.

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