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Building support for press freedom

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Five research-backed recommendations for reinforcing the value of a free press.

The U.S. has historically been a beacon of press freedom, our First Amendment standing as a strong pillar protecting the public’s right to access information and journalists’ right to report it freely. But at a time when attacks on U.S. journalists — both rhetorical and physical, coming from politicians and the public — are rising and sustained, have Americans’ attitudes toward press freedom shifted?

It’s with this question in mind that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press set out to understand how the public perceives press freedom and whether this American value is still widely shared.

What we found last year through a series of focus groups and a national survey is both hopeful and a cause for concern.

The overwhelming majority of American voters we polled, 95 percent, said a free press is important. But despite the alarming confluence of threats journalists face each day, there is a clear lack of urgency among voters around the idea that press freedom is at risk in the U.S.

There are calls of “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” lawsuits aimed at chilling reporting or bankrupting news outlets, leak investigations and subpoenas, and government efforts to keep journalists out of courtrooms and away from public records. Even though these incidents make it difficult for journalists to bring information to the public, they don’t appear to be concerning to the 52 percent of American voters who said they saw little to no threat against the press.

Now more than ever, the news media need the public to speak out in support of the vital role journalism plays in keeping our communities informed and holding those in power accountable. Based on responses from voters, journalists can take five specific steps to help reinforce the value of a free press and spur public support:

1. Don’t make President Trump the focus of the press freedom conversation.

Press freedom is a nonpartisan issue, and the conversation around the importance of defending it should be, too. While it’s necessary to mention the president in some cases, focusing solely on his transgressions against the media immediately polarizes American voters. Physical attacks, arrests, subpoenas and restricted access to public records, courtrooms, government meetings and elected officials are more than Trump issues. It’s imperative readers understand that these issues seriously threaten journalists’ ability to inform. They affect all Americans, regardless of political affiliation.

2. Focus on your role to inform.

Fifty-six percent of voters across the political spectrum said they value the national news media most for this core function and see it as a compelling reason to stand up for press freedom. Real change takes place every day in communities across the country as a result of hard-hitting investigative journalism that exposes government corruption, shines a light on public issues and uncovers the truth. Journalists should clearly communicate with readers about how newsrooms are working to bring readers this kind of information. But don’t stop there. Explain what you’re planning to cover and why, or follow up to share the impact of a news story.

3. Use real examples to illustrate threats to press freedom.

When presented with facts about the very real limitations news media face, voters were more likely to perceive press freedom as under threat. Sharing specific incidents that hinder journalists’ ability to inform the public can effectively demonstrate that our free press urgently needs protecting. Were you denied access to public records? Were you shut out of a city council meeting? Have you been intimidated or threatened for shedding light on a story that some would have preferred be kept hidden? Share with your audience the challenges you face to report the stories they’re reading.

4. Address perceptions of bias and sensationalism in news coverage.

Many voters voiced concerns about journalists “filtering” stories based on their own beliefs, whether they could remain impartial while expressing their personal opinions on television and social media, and being beholden to ratings that drive profits or powerful owners with political agendas. In response to these perceptions, many newsrooms have already begun to diversify their editorial staff and pundits, encourage news reporters to limit their social media commentary and broaden the types of stories they cover. These kinds of actions, among others, can help ensure the press represents the communities they serve.

5. Be transparent about mistakes.

Across the board, voters made clear that acknowledging and correcting mistakes is one of the most important actions the news media can take to show they’re a credible source of information. Voters acknowledged mistakes are a reality of the 24-hour news cycle, but are looking to journalists to own errors when they happen and aim to do better next time.

So, what does all of this mean? Despite heated political rhetoric, there is still widespread, bipartisan support for the role journalism plays in our democracy. A majority of the public, however, doesn’t see how this rhetoric and other attacks inhibit the reporting they value. It’s up to us to show them why their voice is needed to support the journalism upon which they depend.

This post originally appeared in the First Quarter 2019 issue of The Investigative Reporters and Editors Journal.