Why freedom of the press is so pressing

Why freedom of the press is so pressing

“Freedom of the press also comes with a responsibility to report the news,” President Donald Trump said in a tweet on July 29, 2018 in the midst of a rant about “fake news.” The funny thing about it is, for once, President Trump said something about the media that I actually agree with. The rest of the tweet is talking about how when reporters divulge government information, they put lives at risk, but I’m focusing on this quote in particular because I think it makes a powerful argument about the state of journalism in the United States of America.

Journalists do have a responsibility to report the news. Sometimes, the news is ugly, or messy. Sometimes the news does not neatly fold itself into 500 – 700 words of copy that your editor praises glowingly. Freedom of the press, like all other freedoms that come from our Bill of Rights, is not free from consequences. In Jan. 2018, a Gallup study found that 66 percent of Americans agreed that most news media does not do a good job of letting people know what is fact and what is opinion.

News institutions have a massive responsibility hanging over their shoulders to give the most up-to-date and accurate information. When news outlets openly display bias, they risk losing credibility and, therefore, losing readership. However, in the information age, it is so easy to disperse false, biased information online that sometimes, as a journalist, it feels like you are fighting an uphill battle. 

In the digital age, clicks are currency that could equate to the survival or demise of age-old news institutions. When the media chooses to cover what will get the strongest reaction instead of what will contribute the most to understanding a situation, we all lose. Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of voters felt like President Trump received “too much” news coverage during the 2016 primary election.

Social media has made investigative pieces much more accessible, but the easy-to-digest versions of stories rarely capture the whole picture. Modern journalism gets a bad reputation when it gets conflated with clickbait, the juicy alternative to more somber news reporting. Clickbait, which draws in readers by throwing out flashy headlines with little substance to back it up, feeds into the phenomena of social media users reading only headlines and not the actual article. 

Of course, this does not mean that media groups are instantly discredited by their online presence or following in popular culture. Teen Vogue, for example, is largely known for their bubblegum and glitter coverage of topics that target adolescent girls. In the wake of the 2016 election and common frustration with traditional news outlets, Teen Vogue emerged a powerful source of investigative journalism on a range of topics from climate change to mass incarceration. 

Late night talk shows are also becoming increasingly credible. Pew Research Center found that 15 percent of web-using adults find The Colbert Report to be a trustworthy source to learn about government and politics. What used to be considered solely political satire is now being consumed as a legitimate source for news. 

What was once considered to be tried, trusted, and true is no longer so. Americans are increasingly skeptical of their news sources and are seeking out information from previously unconventional outlets. Is this the end of journalism as we know it? Maybe, but it is not the end of journalism altogether. 

Investigative reporting must be the unshakeable core of news outlets — this is where non-traditional sources are thriving. Facts and figures may not produce the best byline, but perpetually trying to produce easy-to-consume materials is the journalistic equivalent of an all-fried food diet. Viewers (and voters, for that matter) are hungry for accuracy, and the constant feeding frenzy of polarized reporting does nothing but deteriorate our democracy.