Scum. Liars. Disgusting. Corrupt.
All words the public and journalists heard during what could very well be the most divisive election we’ve ever seen.
While the U.S. presidential race may be over, the wounds are still healing.
And while President-elect Donald Trump seems to be softening on some of his campaign promises, he has yet to back off the media.
So, what happens next? That’s up to us.
We, as journalists, have been challenged. And that means it’s our time to shine. We are not scum. We are not liars. We are not disgusting. We are not corrupt.
We are professionals. We are protectors of the First Amendment. We are honest. We are compassionate.
Journalists seek truth and report it. We do so by minimizing harm to those involved. We act independently. We are transparent. We hold ourselves accountable. Or at least we’re supposed to when acting ethically, according to the SPJ Code of Ethics.
We produce stories that do not make everyone happy. When we hold the powerful accountable, those with power push back. While it may be easy to take what they say personally and even easier to back off our questioning, we push forward and continue digging.
We do this because our stories can help oppressed communities. Our stories can shed light into the darkest pit. We may know this and value it and hold it near and dear to our hearts, but the public may not. Let’s share this with them.
I’ve heard it said that journalists failed during the 2016 election. I disagree, but I do think there are things we could have done better.
For instance, what if there were fewer talking heads commenting on what the candidates were saying and more in-depth articles and TV and radio packages detailing their plans for the future? What if we actually spoke to our audiences for more than a 10-second sound bite?
What if when we were criticized for being too hard on a candidate we continued to ask questions and demand real answers? What if we were less concerned about how the public may view us for our treatment of a particular candidate?
Would the public’s trust in media be higher if we did those things? I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone knows the answer to that question, but I think we owe it to ourselves — and more importantly to the public — to give it a try and get back to basics.
As journalists, we are working daily in a profession that is mentioned in one of this country’s most important documents: the Bill of Rights.
For me, working as a journalist is an honor and privilege, and I don’t take it lightly. I see myself as a public servant, battling for public records and answers to questions because the public may not have time to but deserves the answers and information.
As I previously wrote, the Society of Professional Journalists is going to stand up tall for journalists, journalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. We are asking that you stand tall with us.
But don’t just stand tall in your newsrooms. Stand tall every day in everything you do. Tell people what you do and why you do it. Explain to non-journalists why the freedoms protected under the Bill of Rights and First Amendment are so special and important.
Because as George Orwell wrote, “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it …”
Public opinion may not be in our favor right now, but that does not mean we give up. The public needs real, accurate and unbiased reporting. More importantly, they deserve it.
We need to stick together, encourage one another and get back to basics. So fire up those FOIA requests and let’s report like the world depends on it … because it very well may right now.
Lynn Walsh is 2016-17 national SPJ president. She leads the NBC7 Investigates team in San Diego. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Connect on Twitter: @LWalsh. Email
Tagged under: FOI