Journalists Need to Advocate for Better Media Policy

The Stop Online Piracy Act has sparked an important debate among journalists and within journalism organizations about their role as advocates for and against policies that impact the future of news. Of course, journalists have long been important advocates for policies like the shield law and the Freedom of Information Act and have been staunch defenders against incursions on freedom of the press. However, in terms of some of the most important media policy discussions, many journalism organizations have been silent. In a profession that prioritizes objectivity, there tends to be an allergy against taking political positions, even on issues that impact the health of the industry. I hope, in light of the SOPA debate, that this might be changing.

This week the Online News Association, for the first time ever, took a stand on an active media policy debate when it came out against SOPA. In a message on the ONA website, the group’s president, Christine Montgomery, wrote, “As an organization representing thousands of content creators, ONA strongly condemns infringement of intellectual property and the violation of copyright. However, we believe SOPA would do little to stem those problems and would actually cause harm to the Internet and to the American public.” It’s notable that ONA did not just release a statement but also encouraged its members to take action and contact Congress about this issue.

In the middle of December, the American Society of News Editors also issued a statement arguing that SOPA “would violate the constitutional rights of free speech and due process, and stifle innovation in the news business.” ASNE also noted that while “the bill is intended to provide U.S.-based copyright owners with the ability to combat online piracy … it goes well beyond that and threatens domestic news organizations and other legitimate websites.”

It’s vital to have these voices as part of this debate because the First Amendment is such a fundamental part of our nation’s identity. Journalists and journalism organizations still carry an incredible amount of sway, and as the landscape of news and media is changing we need to ensure that journalists inform policy discussions.

SOPA is not the only important media policy debate in Washington that could have a huge bearing on journalism. There are other issues that will be decided in the coming months that journalism organizations have been largely silent on.

  • Enhanced Disclosure: The Federal Communications Commission is currently reviewing two proposals that would bring a new level of transparency to broadcast television news, exposing new data about political ad spending, pay-for-play journalism and backroom consolidation deals that have cost so many journalists their jobs in recent years. Broadcasters are fighting back hard against these transparency requirements, but so far not one major journalism organization has weighed in.
  • Media Consolidation: The FCC has also announced proposed changes to its media ownership rules. We’ve documented how media consolidation has led to massive job cuts, resulting in diminished local news coverage; we’ve also examined how consolidation has marginalized women and people of color. The FCC studies its ownership rules every four years, and this time it has proposed the same rule changes that it tried to push through the last time around in the face of protests from the public, Congress and the courts. A few organizations like UNITY Journalists of Color and the various groups under that umbrella have been very vocal on this issue, but few others have been.
  • The IRS and Nonprofit Journalism: The IRS is currently debating whether to allow nonprofit journalism organizations to register as 501(c)(3) nonprofits under its current rules. This debate has left many new organizations waiting at least a year, some more than two years, for tax-exempt status. Organizations focused on ensuring a robust future for journalism ought to be deeply engaged in this conversation.

There are other issues the journalism community should weigh in on, such as Net Neutrality and the need for federal funding of public broadcasting. Both topics would benefit from the journalism community stepping in as advocates for better, public interest-oriented media policy. I hope that the community’s uptick in interest on SOPA is a sign of a larger willingness to engage on these critical issues at a time when so much in the news industry is in flux.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good