|Cartoon from the County Capital during the Populist Era|
More than a decade ago, when I was doing research for a book, I was speaking to a man whose family was dealing with one of the issues covered in my manuscript. During the interview I commented something like this: 'With such an important health issue, I just can't understand how so few people are aware of it.' He replied: 'Every morning it is as if a big truck backed up to your front door and dumped its entire load of important news on your front step. You just can't be informed about everything.' I may not remember the words exactly, but the imagery of his answer has stayed with me since then. That was before so much of our news was spread by the internet and smart phones. Most of us still subscribed to daily newspapers. We watched the evening news on one of the main channels, delivered by news anchors we trusted, on programs that lasted 30 minutes.
How different it is today. Those imaginary trucks are backing up to our door step all day and night, dumping information from sources about which we know very little. Cookies and algorithms track and modify what we see and hear, and we have no idea about the education, experience, bias, and motives of those who spread information.
I have had friends tell me that all of this bombardment of news is so overwhelming that they have just tuned everything out. But, how can we be informed if we do not acquire information from somewhere.
On March 23, 2017 I posted a blog titled Freedom of Speech and Accurate News that provided some history about past efforts to insure that Americans received fair and balanced news on radio and television through what was called The Fairness Doctrine. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) abolished that doctrine in 1987. You might want to read that blog post again to refresh your memory concerning that history.
In No. 84 of the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, in arguing against a Bill of Rights, asked, "Why, for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed." Ultimately, the nation chose to have a Bill of Rights, in which freedom of the press is a specific protection. Yet, scholars still argue exactly what it means.
If you are curious to find the answer in Supreme Court cases, there are two cases you might want to read. Near v. Minnesota, decided in 1931, held that "A Minnesota law that imposed permanent injunctions against the publication of newspapers with 'malicious, scandalous, and defamatory' content violated the 1st Amendment." In 1964, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan held that "A newspaper can be held liable for making false defamatory statements about the official conduct of a public official only if the statements were made with knowing or reckless disregard for the truth." While those cases are important, newspapers are no longer our primary source of news.
Across America major newspapers have ceased operation, turned to online publication only, reduced publication to three days a week, sold far below past value, or announced approaching closing dates. Even the storied New York Times and the Washington Post have been forced to make drastic economic choices.
In 1774, the First Continental Congress recognized the importance of a free press as essential to: "...the advancement of truth, science, morality and arts in general..." As for its importance to the manner in which a government conducts itself, they advocated the importance of: "...its ready communication of thoughts between subjects [citizens], and its consequential promotion of union among them, whereby oppressive officers are shamed or intimidated into more honorable and just modes of conducting affairs." Yet today the press seems more capable of agitating citizens than assisting in bringing citizens together to promote just and honorable conduct by those elected to do the people's business.
Is that the fault of the press or is it the fault of those consumers of the news they produce? Are we seeking news sources that inform us or do we prefer that our preexisting opinions be affirmed? In October of 1922 the American Society of Newspaper Editors was formed to demand of their fellow practitioners "...not only industry and knowledge but also the pursuit of a standard of integrity proportionate to the journalist's singular obligation." In order to "preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people," the ANSE stated six ethical and professional obligations of their profession, quoted in part below.
1. "...to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time..."
2. "Freedom of the press belongs to the people. It must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarter, public or private."
3. "Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict."
4. "Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy..."
5. Sound practice "...demands clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion...clearly identified."
6. "Journalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news, observe the common standards of decency and stand accountable to the public for the fairness and accuracy of their news reports. ...Pledges of confidentiality...must be honored at all costs, and therefore should not be given lightly." The full statement of principles can be found at the ASNE website.
Distrust of the news is nothing new, as the political cartoon from the County Capital published in St. John, Kansas during the populist movement clearly indicates. None of us likes to hear news with which we disagree, but we are not well served to ignore the news or to discount everything that fails to align with our opinions. Applying the ANSE standards to the sources of news we follow is a good test of how well they are serving the public's need to be accurately informed.