By Marc Berliner
“Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” – Walter Cronkite
May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, first proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in December 1993 to raise awareness of the importance of a free press and to remind governments of their duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression guaranteed by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Per the UN, World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to:
- “Celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
- assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
- defend the media from attacks on their independence;
- and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”
The theme for the 2018 celebration is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.” The theme is apt. I can’t think of a time in my lifetime when freedom of the press – protected by First Amendment to the United States Constitution – has come under such attack. When the leader of the free world rails against the media on a daily basis, going so far as to suggest jailing journalists, it’s clear that defending the press has never been more important.
Before I go any further, I have a confession to make. As a communications professional for 20+ years, at times I’ve been guilty of viewing journalists as merely a conduit for telling stories about my clients. While covering American business is one responsibility of the media, there is a much more critical role that the media plays in our society. Media helps create and shape public opinion and serves as a watchdog to protect the public interest against unethical, illegal and otherwise unseemly acts.
The debate over press freedom has become a daily topic of conversation – in the media, on the train, at the watercooler, at the dinner table… everywhere, really. Some media are accused of being too conservative, others are knocked for being too liberal. All types of media put up with allegations of “Fake News!”
But every day there are great examples of how the media serves the public interest. Consider the following:
- From Minimizing to #MeToo: Rampant sexual abuse would not have been exposed without the dogged reporting of journalists, like Ronan Farrow who ignored the threats of extremely powerful men
- Uncovering the Untold Story: While lesser known than the sexual abuse scandals plaguing multiple industries, this Bloomberg story on foreign hackers breaching U.S. nuclear sites is downright terrifying
- A New Perspective on a Widely-Covered Story: While numerous media outlets covered the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, it was this chilling segment from Vice News that took viewers into the minds of leaders
- Relentlessly Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: The Washington Post won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for “purposeful and relentless reporting” that changed the course of a Senate race in Alabama by revealing a candidate’s alleged past sexual harassment of teenage girls and subsequent efforts to undermine the journalism that exposed it.
Regardless of your political affiliation or the issues you care about, it’s hard to argue against the importance of a free press. Pivotal moments in the history of our country would not have happened without the media.
So how can we support a free press? I’m not going to tell other people what to do, but I’ll share my approach. I’ve tried to carve out more time to read a variety of outlets that represent different viewpoints. It’s easy to get comfortable and consume media that fits our beliefs. But reading different perspectives on current events and key issues has made me more informed and empathetic to people on the other side.
In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “Promoting a free press is standing up for our right to truth.” As marketers and communications practitioners, we all have a role to play in supporting and promoting media by defending their right to tell the stories that must be told.
Marc Berliner is Senior Vice President, Cone Communications