Ferguson Police vs. Journalists: Why Bullying the News Writer Hurts Citizens

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By Rachel Burger , CP Op-Ed Contributor
August 18, 2014|12:05 pm
  • Rachel Burger
    Rachel Burger is a Young Voices Advocate and the associate editor of Thoughts on Liberty.

Police in Ferguson, MO arrested two journalists for covering the protests over their fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager six. Officers shoved Wesley Lowery, of The Washington Post, into a soda machine for taping them, before he was cuffed in plastic binds. A Ferguson officer rammed Ryan Grim's head against glass. The reporter for The Huffington Post wasn't packing up his reporting gear quickly enough. Both journalists' respective papers released statements condemning the Ferguson police, but the decline of free press reaches further than one town in Missouri.

Unfortunately state suppression of the press is hardly isolated to Ferguson. The problem goes all the way up to the White House, where the Obama Administration is preventing journalists from accurately reporting on policy.

According to The Society of Professional Journalists, the Obama Administration has engaged in "excessive message management and preventing journalists from getting information on behalf of citizens." The grievances were also supported by 37 other journalism and open government groups. The report details the use of "Public Information Officers," whose roles are to filter reports before they're available for mass consumption. Stories coming from the White House are trimmed and primed to perfection before the public can even get access to the latest information.

That's when they're not spying on journalists. Last year, the Justice Department subpoenaed all of the Associated Press's phone records while hunting for Edward Snowden. According to Human Rights Watch, the increase in U.S. surveillance has dramatically impacted journalism. They write, "The crackdown includes new restrictions on contact between intelligence officials and the media [and] an increase in leak prosecutions… Journalists interviewed for the report said that surveillance intimidates sources, making them more hesitant to discuss even unclassified issues of public concern."

On Wednesday, a group of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists banded together to demand the Department of Justice stop threatening reporters with jail. Their cries for sanctuary have been met with silence.

In a saddening review of the world's treatment of journalists, International NGO Reporters Without Borders rates 46 out of 180 countries in press freedom. The United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Poland all treat their press far better than in this country. "Freedom of Speech," as codified in the First Amendment, has all but deteriorated. The government has made it exceedingly difficult for reporters to ask hard questions and receive straight answers without repercussions. It's a lot easier for journalists today to report on click-bait than hard-hitting truths about our government.

In order for any democracy to properly function, the citizenry must be informed. Voters can't make informed choices without the press. Representation without information is not representation at all.

The Columbia Journalism Review released a story a few months ago unveiling how the media industry functions today; their analysis can be quickly summed up by the line: "Report first, ask questions later." This media model has triumphed over its old-media precursor--the Network-era news symbolized by Walter Cronkite--and this "new-media" model is here to stay. News agencies are far more focused on clicks and views, foregoing copyediting and fact checking.

While the public can't expect media to return to the Cronkite-era (nor would we want to--it was a time where all journalists were white men, news wasn't entertaining, and there was only one narrative to every news story), we can hope that accuracy becomes reprioritized. But the first step has to be demanding that the government doesn't get in the way of the press doing its job: informing the people. Press freedom needs to be a priority. Only after this problem gets addressed will we see a renaissance of quality journalism.

The United States and its people need to emphasize the importance of freedom of the press. This country cannot function as a "democracy" if its constituency is ill or uninformed. Yes, a great deal of the media's misreporting and click baiting is its own fault. But let's make it easier for the press to report on how our government is behaving--because for many, that's what we're interested in above all else.

This article has been corrected to reflect the newly reported autopsy.

Rachel Burger is a Young Voices Advocate and the associate editor of Thoughts on Liberty. She writes frequently about social issues and foreign policy. She received her MA from University of Chicago's Committee on International Relations and her BA from Agnes Scott College.
 

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