Events of the past week or two bring home just how fuzzy many Americans are on journalism and the First Amendment.
Officials of a Wisconsin county wanted to prosecute journalists for reporting anything less or more than the government’s official press release.
And students at one of the nation’s most-prestigious journalism schools did a fine job covering a campus controversy– and then publicly apologized.
A new national poll found that Americans are finding it difficult to tell fact from falsehood.
Is it any wonder?
It’s pretty simple, really: A journalist’s obligation is to report accurately and fairly on things of public interest.
The First Amendment guarantees the right to do this regardless of whether it helps or hurts any other agenda.
To do this, reporters ask people questions, observe events and review public documents.
Sometimes important information for a story isn’t public, and a reporter has to try to persuade someone to explain something or share a document voluntarily.
Often, good journalism makes people mad or sad.
Ideally, reporting on corruption, injustice and cruelty makes readers mad enough to work for change.
Misunderstandings about the rights and obligations of a free press aren’t new, but as with every controversy these days, they seem amplified.
In Lafayette County, Wis., a county supervisor tried to criminalize Journalism 101 in order to control what residents would hear about a water-quality study.
A proposed resolution decreed that journalists writing about the study must publish the county’s press release word for word, no changes, or face prosecution (no word on what law might apply there).
Among the most ridiculous sentences: “Under no circumstances is the media allowed to glean information and selectively report it in order to interpret the results for their own means.”
“Gleaning and interpreting information” is pretty much a job description for journalism.
The county’s law director nixed the preposterous proposal as “a nonstarter,” but its very existence should serve as a red flag to anyone who cares about the First Amendment.
Then there was the “Daily Northwestern,” the student paper at Northwestern University’s highly regarded Medill School of Journalism.
A campus visit by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions sparked a protest that included shoving between police officers and protesters.
The paper published pictures of protesters.
Wanting to give those pictured a chance to say more about the events, the reporters looked them up in the school directory and called them.
Absolutely standard, utterly responsible practice.
But some of the student activists pictured complained that seeing the photos on social media was traumatic and could get them in trouble with the university.
The student editor, Troy Closson, published an editorial apologizing for publishing the photos and using the directory to find people.
Then the real backlash started, with professional journalists Twitter-wide blasting the students for failing to defend elemental journalism.
The thundering condemnation may have been excessive; the offenders were students, after all, and the moment called for teaching more than ridicule.
Still, the apology editorial illustrated a troubling ignorance of some inescapable truths: When public discourse turns heated, reporting it accurately is going to make somebody mad.
Public acts such as protests are fair game for reporters.
Good journalism often makes people uncomfortable, but journalists who live and work in a community– including a college campus– should not be deterred by that discomfort.– Columbus Dispatch