Journalism Needs More Than a Media Shield Law --- It Needs a Movement

According to the First Amendment Center’s new survey, freedom of speech is Americans’ favorite First Amendment right.

Press freedom, however, came in dead last.

The notion of ranking our rights is a bit contrived, given that — as the director of the First Amendment Center notes — “our core freedoms, regardless of their relative popularity, complement and reinforce one another.”

That said, press freedom’s standing in this survey, paired with recent events around the country, reveals a troubling disconnect.

The survey came out the same day that a bipartisan group of senators introduced a new version of the media shield law. The bill would codify the recently revised Justice Department guidelines for federal investigations involving journalists into law and expand their reach.

All of this comes on the heels of the controversy  surrounding the Justice Department’s seizure of phone and email records from reporters at the Associated Press and Fox News. The new shield bill — a version of which is being teed up in the House — would ensure that future administrations can’t undo the new protections the Justice Department put in place. This is an encouraging development, but real questions remain about who the bill would protect and how loopholes around national security issues may weaken the law.

As this bill moves through Congress we need a national debate about press freedom and journalism in a networked age. We are facing a crisis in press freedom in America, and the worst thing that could happen would be for this bill to be negotiated behind closed doors without input from journalists and citizens around the country.

A range of threats is facing people who “commit acts of journalism.” We have talking heads and members of Congress musing about whether reporters should be jailed for publishing leaked documents. We have restrictive “Ag-Gag” laws that make it illegal to film farms and slaughterhouses. Police frequently threaten and intimidate photographers just for doing their job. And more than 100 journalists have been arrested while covering protests around the United States in the last two years.

The new Justice Department guidelines aren’t going to change this. The new shield law isn’t going to change this. Sternly worded letters from press organizations aren’t going to change this. Things will change only when people understand and embrace press freedom as a central part of their daily lives.

The traditional tactics for protecting press freedom are necessary but insufficient. We need to engage people’s hearts and minds. Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler was in the news last week for his defense of WikiLeaks as a journalistic organization. Writing about the case last year, he argued "A country's constitutional culture is made up of the stories we tell each other about the kind of nation we are."

It’s time to tell a new story about press freedom in America. Our old stories celebrated the journalists of Watergate and the pioneering broadcasters who brought reporting on wars and struggles into our homes. But today, our story must account for livestreamers on the front lines of civil unrest, freelancers documenting conflicts abroad, bloggers covering their neighborhoods and bystanders who pull out their phones to bear witness to abuses and crimes.

We need to see press freedom rights not as a narrow set of protections for a particular industry, but as a broad set of rights applicable to all Americans.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good