Is Freedom of the Press a Good Thing?

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day. According to Gallup, the world in general is more likely to see the media as having a lot of freedom than it did a few years ago.

“Across 133 countries surveyed last year – one of the deadliest on record for journalists – a median of 64% of adults agreed the media in their country have a lot of freedom, while 28% disagreed,” the Gallup piece stated. “These results are similar to the 2017 figures, but represent a slight improvement from 2016.”

Perceptions vary globally, however. In 28 countries, places like Belarus, Gabon and Republic of the Congo, less than half of adults say media have a lot of freedom. Many of these places already had long standing, poor track records on media freedom, or they are places where media freedom is eroding.

Overall, however, the power of the pen is still a viable thing. On one level, that’s definitely good. But on a deeper level, is it really? I mean, what is the press doing with its freedom? I don’t think we do enough.

This week CNN reported that “sexual assaults across the US military increased by a rate of nearly 38% in 2018, according to a report released by the Pentagon on Thursday.”

Young women between 17 and 24 on active duty force are at the highest risk of sexual assault, while the rates for men on active duty force didn’t change from the 2016 report. My first thought was, that sounds like backlash for #MeToo. It could also be that more people now have the courage to come forward to report what’s happened, thanks to increased media coverage. But my gut tells me at least part of those numbers are backlash related. The timing fits a little too well, and CNN seemed to share my thinking if the #MeToo imagery that accompanied the article is any indication.

It’s certainly not the press’ fault men are pissed and showing it in horrible ways now that women are reporting them and demanding they alter their sexist behavior or pay the consequences. But I think press’ should have some responsibility to go beyond just reporting these dismal numbers.

I’m speaking generally here, as there are many high-quality media outlets who consistently do go beyond fact-based reporting to offer more analysis on the issues behind the facts, but not that many, certainly not enough. Most are just concerned with quick clicks – and by association with quick money – the facts are just details.

I skirted the issue a bit last week in the context of vanishing data privacy, but the currency that our media operates with today is primarily engagement, or attention. Both are fueled by people, what we click on, what we share, post and take time to comment on. So, in that sense, the media is reporting on what it believes people want based on past viewing and content consumption behavior.

But again, isn’t it the press’ responsibility to move thought beyond a simplistic recitation of facts? If not, what good is so much freedom? I associate freedom with power. With power comes responsibility, right? My idealism may be showing here.

Still, you can’t deny that a good chunk of our so-called news today isn’t actually fact-based. It’s a loose stretch to even call it news. It’s more like biased agenda pushing, or high-powered ass kissing loosely disguised as storytelling with integrity. The more brazen of my media brethren don’t even try to pretend they’re journalists. At least, I hope they’ve not deluded themselves to that extent, no matter what they say publicly.

Imagery is increasingly important these days as an attention-grabbing mechanism. It’s the result of evolving technology and our ability to easily capture visually compelling moments, and then share them right when and where we want to. Pictures are notoriously biased. They play on our emotions, our hidden kinks and fears, our worries. That’s exactly why they’re so effective as a media tool, and all media use them, but how they’re used is the question.

Many “journalists” today are more like personalities, squawking on various platforms under a brand and clinging to the illusion of old-fashioned journalism by the tips of their grubby fingernails. We don’t even bother to mention the bias in how we cover the news or use provocative headlines, imagery, the tone of our voices, even our body language to titillate and say what traditional media pros might not dare to express explicitly. We just shape the narrative according to which way the wind is blowing politically, or otherwise, and let the chips fall where they may.

It could be that I’m too idealistic. I was weened on and taught a different kind of journalism than what goes by that name today. Social media has changed the game completely, and the speed with which we can now report every little thing all around the world has prompted changes in media business operating models that had no choice but to impact how media professionals go about their work. Alongside attention, speed is another factor that determines media behavior.

Some might argue that what I’m talking about is the split between hard news and opinion, or blogging. Could be. But that split happened long ago – perhaps even before blogging took hold. We’re not going back to the old way – if that old way ever really existed, since bias is not new in media coverage – so why not embrace this particular division and level up?

I stand by my position: The media should aspire to more. Some of us are in the game operating how I’ve described. There are facts, there is analysis and where appropriate, the two coexist in a harmonious balance that embraces new tech, speed and grabs attention with quality storytelling, not just grabs clicks with BS. But those outlets are too few.

The numbers suggest that as a global industry we have more freedom. Let’s use it – more. For instance, let’s have more of us dare to call out or at least suggest that what is likely behind those alarmingly increasing military rape and assault numbers is a knee jerk reaction to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Otherwise, the media is just producing a running litany of bad news.

We have to report some bad stuff. It is what it is, right? The world is not a happy go lucky place where everything is roses and sunshine and children skipping under rainbows. We have to objectively report the good as well as the bad.

But where needed – and globally where it’s allowed – the power of the pen can prompt corrective action. Let’s pick up that mantle, and make part of our duty as journalists, as media professionals, to make the world a safer, fairer place for everyone. If we don’t, what good are we really doing with our freedom of the press? We’re wasting people’s time. We’re creating a sense of futility and hopelessness that doesn’t inspire action, it actively depresses the will to act and encourages retreat.

Okay. Idealistic media rant off. Realism on. Sort of. Remember, this is a blog, not hard news.

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