Alison Bethel McKenzie
There was a time in the United States when a journalist would, in response to a written invitation, make time in their busy day to stop by the local elementary school to talk about reporting with wide-eyed school children whose only real interaction with a journalist was reading the comic strip of glamourous journalist Brenda Starr or watching the investigative exploits of Superman’s girlfriend Lois Lane. But today there are very few elementary school visits, and finding anyone doe-eyed about journalists is like finding a needle in a haystack in America today.
In 2018, there were over 100 press freedom violations in the United States.
Journalists were murdered, attacked while covering rallies and protests, jailed, subpoenaed and stopped at borders, according to Press Freedom Tracker.
Prior to the horrific murder of four journalists and a newsroom administrator at the offices of the Capital Gazette in Maryland, located on the Eastern Seaboard of the country, the last time a journalist had been murdered on U.S. soil was in 2015 when reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, who worked for a CNN television affiliate in Virginia, were gunned down during a live broadcast by a disgruntled former colleague. Before that, my former colleague Chauncey Bailey, an investigative and editor-in-chief of a newspaper in northern California was murdered to stop him from reporting a story.
But today, my home country is a very different place.
While we don’t see large numbers of journalists being murdered, we are seeing unprecedented numbers being attacked and assaulted.
“One thing for sure is that I remember in the old days you would go out and talk to people and they were really welcoming. They would welcome you into their homes because for them it was an honour and an opportunity to be in the newspaper. They saw it as a good thing,” recalls veteran journalist Andrew Skerritt, a former editor with a Gannett newspaper in Florida. He, along with many others at the nation’s largest newspaper chain, was laid off from his position at the start of this year.
Today, America is a place in which many journalists work in fear. And not only fear of physical and verbal attacks – the President of the United States, Donald Trump, has referred to the media as “the enemy of the American people” – but also fear of losing their jobs. Just since November 2018, more than 6,000 journalists have lost their jobs in America, through layoffs and the closure of some media houses.
“I definitely think about the issues a lot more. Part of it, too, is being married to a photojournalist,” says Anna G. Bahn, communications coordinator for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C..
“I think there is inherently more risk.” Bahn said she never knows when there is breaking news and her husband must go out, “whether we will encounter someone who will want to harm him because they don’t like the media.”
Both Bahn and Skerritt agree that the loss of journalism jobs and the threats to journalists, particularly in a country where press freedom is written into the U.S. Constitution, could have a significant impact on democracy in America.
And, adds Bahn, “It will eventually deter people from going into journalism. There aren’t that many jobs, it is not well paid and on top of that, everyone hates you.”
Bahn tells me that in other high-risk jobs, there are incentives and a recognition of the risk involved in doing your work. Not so in journalism, she says. “A lot of people If you don’t have a mainstream media in this country, then you don’t have a democracy. Every day we are seeing that that’s a fact… don’t think of journalists as first responders, but they are. They are there with everyone else when something happens,” she said.
There are many reasons why trust in the media is at an all-time low in the United States. Polls have shown that many Americans are sceptical about what they read in newspapers and what they see on television. The Pew Research Centre in June 2018 reported that only 49 percent of those surveyed had “some trust,” that 29 percent have “not too much” trust and a meagre 21 percent have “a lot of trust.”
Attitudes toward the media have changed in large part because of this idea of “fake news,” the belief that many journalists simply make up news or other information to feed to the public. Citizens have also questioned the media’s ethics, complaining that journalists have erred on the side of political partisanship and “little white lies” and, in the rare case, making stories up altogether.
The truth is that the clear majority of journalists hold journalism ethics and go into the office everyday striving to produce good, truthful and impactful journalism. Have there been cases where a journalist has gotten it wrong? Sure. But that is by far the exception and not the rule. And it is no reason to attack journalists.
“Backlash is so much a part of the landscape [today],”
Skerritt said of the work environment for journalists in the United States. “There is a disdain that did not exist before. It’s been sort of coming for a long time. On one side you have this whole network whose reason for being is to question the integrity of the mainstream media. And what we are seeing is that decade of hostility paying off.”
As of the writing of this piece (mid-February), two journalists had been arrested and one attacked in the United States.
Recently, I was contacted about a journalist who attended a public school board meeting and, as is customary, placed his tape recorder at the podium to record the speakers. In his haste to grab a source for further comment after the hearing, he inadvertently left his recorder at the podium.
When he went back to retrieve it, the room was locked, and he was told that he would have to come back the next day to get the recorder.
Upon returning the next day to pick up his recorder, he found that the tape recording of the public meeting had been erased. When he asked about it, he was told that there was some sensitive student information on the recording.
Where is the democracy in that?
As Skerritt so emphatically notes during our phone conversation: “Journalism is the one essential thing to American democracy. Nothing works in America without journalism.
“If you don’t have a mainstream media in this country, then you don’t have a democracy. Every day we are seeing that that’s a fact,” he said.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash