How Discrediting the Press Endangers Our Freedom (and What to do Instead)

“You can’t trust the media anymore.” Though I currently live abroad, the last time I visited the U.S.A., in December, this line was everywhere. There’s an idea creeping into American society that the press is tainted by hidden agendas, and we shouldn’t bother to listen to them anymore. Accusations of “fake news” are often thrown out in White House Press conferences, without supporting facts. This should frighten everyone. The vilification of all dissenting media and journalists endangers our freedom. There are more responsible ways to educate ourselves and hold the media accountable, rather than making a blanket declaration against it.

Free speech and freedom of the press are one of the things that makes America truly great. We can form and speak aloud any opinion that we want. In contrast, government censorship in some countries prevents the press from sharing any information that the government doesn’t like or approve of.

The most shocking example of this I’ve seen was a North Korean history book. I stumbled across it in a used book stall at one of the outdoor markets where I live. It was an English translation, and as I flipped through the pages, I saw an article about WWII. In this book written by the government, Japan was the clear winner of WWII, and the USA went home defeated and humiliated. For those who are rusty on their history, this is utterly, demonstrably false. Where government censorship reigns, history books can say whatever the government wants. It fits North Korea’s agenda to show the USA as weak. The North Korean government is not above making up information to support that idea.

I don’t think the USA is heading toward government censorship, though it is a topic that some are discussing and supporting. The majority value our freedom of speech too much. Additionally, it is a fundamental right guaranteed to us by the First Amendment. The current administration doesn’t like what the media is saying, though. Since they can’t stop it, their only course of legal action is to discredit it. The public is following suit.

Donald Trump claims the media is the enemy of the American people. This is an attempt to set up the government, and himself, as the more accurate source of information. Sometimes, though, the government lies, misleads, or withholds information. In Italy for example, “Newspaper editors were all personally chosen by Mussolini and only those in possession of a certificate of approval from the fascist party could practice journalism. These certificates were issued in secret; Mussolini thus skillfully created the illusion of a ‘free press’.” Hitler did something similar in Germany. While those are extreme examples, they are the destinations at the far end of the road we have started to walk down. It’s time we stopped, or better yet, turned back.

Discrediting all media endangers its existence- it needs our support to survive. Additionally, choice is a necessary component of freedom. If we do not have multiple ways to collect information, or access to conflicting opinions, we are not free. Not all media is valuable, true, or worth our time, though. If you’re unfamiliar with true “fake news,” stories (which create fictional events or people to sway public opinion), I encourage you to read this.

How then, can we decide what is worthy of our time?

1. Investigate everything.

My first memorable encounter with sensationalist news was an article entitled “Obama’s New ‘Christmas Tree Tax.’” It claimed that President Obama imposed a 15 cent tax on Christmas trees. While somewhat true, that headline and the accompanying article misrepresented the situation. It took me a few minutes of online searches to understand what was truly going on.

What happened is this; the Christmas tree industry was concerned about losing sales. The growing popularity of artificial trees encroaches on their business. They wanted to create an ad campaign like ‘Got Milk?’ or ‘The Incredible Edible Egg.’ To fund the campaign, they would tax themselves. Growers who had farms larger than 500 trees would pay 15 cents per tree toward advertising. Christmas trees are an agricultural product, grown, harvested and replanted like carrots or peas. Because of this, the industry had to seek approval from the Agriculture Department, part of Obama’s administration.

That is what I would call a prime example of irresponsible journalism. Crucial portions of the story were withheld to create a desired opinion. They framed it as part of the “ongoing war on Christmas.” Public outcry to the story made it difficult for the Christmas tree growers to do what they wanted. It took more than two years to lift the government stay that went into place after people spoke out against the tax. If I hadn’t taken the time to do a little more research, I likely would have been among those protesting. Christmas tree growers wanted to impose the tax on themselves, though, and that’s really none of my concern.

Use tools like search engines and multiple sources to collect more information about a sensational topic. Read the Bills, letters, and reports that those articles are addressing, and see what’s written in them for yourself.

2. Hold the Media Accountable

When you see examples of irresponsible journalism, call it out. Post online, write a letter to the editor, write an article of your own and share it.

There are ethical standards journalists must follow, and if you see anyone doing something truly wrong, you can report it.

3. Understand the difference between editorial and news.

The editorial section of a newspaper or online news source is a section where journalists and the board of a newspaper can share their opinion on certain topics in the news.

News is a section of the newspaper where journalists report things that happen. Sometimes those articles contain statements of people’s opinions. Sometimes they divulge a reporter’s perspective because of the information contained or withheld. Good journalists, however, do not make things up. Good newspapers reprimand those who do.

Disagreeing with the editorial section of a particle newspaper doesn’t mean everything in the entire paper is false or without value. It is okay for a newspaper to have an opinion or leaning, just as it is okay for you or me to have an opinion.

At the same time, when you find a source you do like, take care not to rely on just opinion pieces. Many Fox News shows and radio talk shows are opinion shows. This is an opinion piece. The Daily Show and the Late Show are also opinion. It’s fine to read or watch those, but make sure to read news articles, too, and form opinions of your own.

4. Dismantle the Echo Chamber

There is a dangerous trend in the USA today, where people only value the ideas of those who agree with them. This divides the population, limits our knowledge, and gives us less opportunity to find out when we are mistaken. Sometimes we are wrong.

Most of us exist in an echo chamber. Our social media feeds and real-life social groups repeat back what we already believe. A healthy thing to combat that is to seek out news and conversation we may disagree with. This is a great article that lists news sources with both liberal and conservative leanings. These are sources that generally hold their journalists accountable to high standards and ethics. I’d encourage you to follow a few from the opposite side of the fence. This also helps you to determine whether a news item is real. If only one side is reporting on it, there’s probably more to the story. If both sides are reporting on something, having two perspectives will help you weed out fact from opinion.

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You could interpret this as paranoia, but I would argue it’s better to be safe than sorry. As senator John McCain (R-AZ) said in a recent interview, this is “how dictators get started…When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

At the end of the day, most journalists are simply trying to do their job, and collect and share as much information as possible with the public. Those in war zones risk their lives everyday to bring us accurate information, and calling them the enemy is a heavy insult. Many have died in the pursuit of that knowledge. Journalists are not our enemy, they are an incredible resource, and we are fortunate to have them, whether we agree with them or not.