Many people around the world are calling for us to fight for freedom of the press. I don’t think so. Freedom of speech, freedom of information, and accountability of the press would be what I am looking for.
I mentioned in Transparency, Privacy and Democracy the duty of the press to provide us with true investigative, transparent, and unbiased journalism on the topics that the public truly does need to know to make self governing decisions. Due to a lack of real information available to us, the press has been able to publish far too much propaganda and entertainment news, and we have not been able to call them on it. While I love inflamed rhetoric as much as the next person (see my blog), it has no place in a supposedly serious hard news piece.
Demanding accountability from the media has greatly accelerated this summer and needs to become second nature in every article we read. The old media are existing on our sufferance now. If they wish to survive, they must become highly reliable forums for public discussion. Here are my rules for my own media watching:
Feedback. If there is no allowance for feedback, do not read. An article that is afraid of reader comments is the equivalent of a politician that is afraid of their voters.
Fact check. Where have they obtained those facts? Are they verifiable? Phrases like “it is common knowledge…”, “sources say”, “it may be inferred”, “many … are saying”, “this may be …” should be called.
Opinions. Unless an article is clearly billed as an opinion piece, the opinions should be left for the comments, and that includes the leading descriptives. Again, I love a flowery piece, but do the adjectives match the facts? If not, call.
Quotes not in quotes. Why do some writers think this is ok? They can say you said something you didn’t, if they don’t put it in quotes? I don’t think it’s ok in any case, but look out for fragmented quotes with the writer’s own words inserted, and demand to know what was actually said.
Headlines and beginning sentences that completely contradict the story. Those are fairly obvious if you read the story and should of course be called, but what about the very factual headlines that strongly encourage readers to think something completely different? Here is a NY Times article that accurately describes the horrific decision by the US Court of Appeals to disallow torture victims to bring their case to court because of the US government’s “need to protect state secrets”. Note, they are not objecting to specific evidence being brought to court, they are objecting to the actual case being brought before a court at all. The article is very reasonable, but if you look at the front online page, or the article as it is brought up online, it says
Court Dismisses a Case Asserting Torture by C.I.A.
A sharply divided appeals court dismissed a lawsuit involving the C.I.A.’s “extraordinary rendition” program.
I don’t know about you, but this does not sound to me like the right to bring the lawsuit was revoked, it sounds like just this one suit was thrown out, probably because it was not backed by evidence or the law. Writer is solid, editor needs to be called.
What else? The duty of the press in a democracy is to provide us with the information we need to know to make informed decisions to govern ourselves. The private lives of private citizens are to be kept private. Any newsworthy information on public organizations is to be published. If the media you are reading does not fulfill its obligation, it is not worth fighting for. Fight for freedom of speech and information, not to protect those who are telling us what an actor’s child is wearing.