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In our daily lives, few things drive discourse and conversation more than the press. The coverage, investigation and reporting of news is the fuel that carries small conversation, political discourse and general around-the-water-cooler chatter. In our lives as social creatures, and our roles as citizens in civic society, the role of the press is paramount.
Friday, May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day. It’s an annual event recognized globally by the United Nations since 1993. Press freedom is enshrined in international law—codified under Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and in national laws across the globe.
While the annual day-long commemoration is important, it’s equally important that we recognize the value of protecting the freedom of press—and the safety of members of the media—throughout the year. The threat to journalists today is at its highest level in a decade. Throughout 2018, 78 journalists were killed and more than 300 were imprisoned across the globe.
This must change.
Threats, violence and suppression tactics against the press aren’t problems limited to so-called third-world countries or dictatorial regimes. Increasingly, the safety and freedom of the press are being challenged in the most modern of democracies with many recent examples.
In April 2019, United Kingdom-based freelance journalists Lyra McKee was fatally injured while reporting on riots and police activity in Northern Ireland. In June 2018, four reporters at the Capital Gazette—a print newspaper based in Annapolis, Maryland—were murdered in a targeted attack on the news outlet. In their 2018 cumulative review, Reporters Without Borders named the United States to its top ten list of most dangerous countries for journalists.
This comes in addition to rhetorical and non-lethal violence. In the past two years, world leaders have called the press "the enemy of the people.” A reporter covering a U.S. congressional political campaign was tackled by the candidate they were covering. In Germany, hackers have begun routinely publishing personal information (“doxing”) about journalists—like phone numbers and home addresses—in an attempt at targeted harassment.
Underpinning this all: the propagation of terms like “fake news” and “Lügenpresse” (“lying press,” in German) by world politicians seeking to discredit unfavorable coverage of themselves.
In apparent response to the politically charged attacks on the legitimacy of the press, this year’s World Press Freedom Day will focus on “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.”
At the global summit surrounding Press Freedom Day, journalists will attend sessions on topics to include defending themselves against online “trolling” (rhetorical online attacks for the primary purpose of inciting anger), covering elections in nondemocratic countries, doubling down on the fight against disinformation and covering elections in the digital age.
Yet, while journalists convene to build strategies for stopping the spread of disinformation, this duty extends to each of us as individual members of a global society. One of the best methods everyday citizens can employ to help stop disinformation is to properly vet the information shared on social media channels.
Social media and digital innovation have made each person with a smartphone or computer their own publisher, yet many may lack the media literacy to determine the veracity of information they are sharing. A 2018 report conducted by the European Commission recommended improved media and information literacy as one of five tactics to stop the spread of digital disinformation.
This starts by learning to do quick fact checks. Learn to be skeptical of online content coming from an unknown publisher. Start questioning headlines that make you have an instant, strong emotional response. Be aware of your biases and recognize when you may allow facts to rank secondary to the fallacy of confirmation bias.
There are fewer community-based journalists today than ever before. Legacy media organizations across the world are closing at increasingly fast rates. Attacks—physical and rhetorical—against the media are peaking right as fewer and fewer journalists exist to form close connections with individuals.
It’s important, therefore, to remember that journalists are daughters, sons, mothers and fathers just like us. They go to work with a conviction that they’re devoting their life to sharing the information that helps us live ours. We must remember that, and we can’t forget those that have died pursuing that mission.
Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the 78 journalists who were lost their lives while reporting in 2018.