The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom.
May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day. Since 1993, global journalists have used World Press Freedom Day to discuss and implement solutions to emerging challenges to press freedom and journalists’ safety. This year’s theme is “Information as a Public Good,” a fitting reminder considering the state of our world and its increasingly negative view of news media.
Media distrust is on the rise. However, there is a stark difference between journalism and broadcast media commentary. The latter is usually what people are criticizing when they voice skepticism of the news. For example, the article you’re reading now isn’t journalism. While I will be disseminating information—specifically why the dissemination of information is important to global society—the message will be constructed from analysis and opinion.
The internet has muddied how people find, digest, and communicate news, mostly because anyone can pass their thoughts, analysis, and opinions online as fact. While this does have its merits, namely in calling out certain publications for spreading lies, hate, or half-truths, it shouldn’t downplay the importance of journalism and reporting.
Take a moment and imagine a world without news. If there was an emergency, how would your community become aware? Sure, word of mouth is powerful, but can it reach an entire community quickly in order to mobilize the masses? And will the information be accurate? Say the emergency in question is a fire. While one person could have told you there was a wildfire, another person (Sokka) could have told you Combustion Man (a.k.a. Sparky Sparky Boom Man) was detonating large explosions throughout your suburb. While both pieces of information do communicate the need for evacuation, there is an obvious factual flaw, which could affect how people respond to the emergency.
Many ancient global societies realized the importance of both efficiency and accuracy when it came to spreading information. As early as 206 BC, China used palace reports or imperial bulletins known as dibao to make official announcements and inform people of the latest news. In the Greek agora and Roman Forums, spoken news was complemented by daily handwritten sheets that included information on politics, the military, and executions.
Today, the news keeps many communities abreast of important events. Censorship, however, continues to prevent journalists from helping spread crucial information. While news consumption surged at the start of the pandemic last year, global governments restricted and discredited news media as “fake news,” especially after many journalists exposed the failings of governmental responses and regulations to COVID-19.
Media censorship regularly occurs, with stories edited for reasons like length, privacy, national security, or simply to protect news companies from corporate, political, or advertiser fallout. However, the fact remains news media is crucial to the circulation of information, and information should be a right that all people have access to.
But the pandemic also exacerbated the problem of the closing of news media outlets. Many publications shut down last year, and 37,000 news company workers were laid off, furloughed, or had their pay reduced. How can we continue to protect information as a public good without news media and journalism?
One way is through World Press Freedom Day, which reminds many of us that journalism is as important as ever. Local reporters and journalists are often the reason why headlines are picked up by national news companies. Such was the case for the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Both stories were first reported on by local news publications like The Brunswick News and Kentucky’s Courier-Journal before The New York Times, CNN, and more covered the stories.
Local newspapers are also important because they provide timely, relevant information to communities around the world. In the words of NBC’s Matt Laslo, “independent, close-to-home reporting has always—and will always—be a life-giving resource to communities because information is foundational to modern life.” For communities like mine, this has meant keeping my neighbors and me apprised of news on approaching wildfires, air quality, quarantine guidelines, vaccine availability, and more. This is but one of the reasons why the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day is so important.
“The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, ‘Information as a Public Good,’ underlines the indisputable importance of verified and reliable information. It calls attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information, by tackling misinformation and other harmful content,” said Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO.
To celebrate World Press Freedom Day this year, I suggest applying the old adage of “think globally, act locally” to our efforts. Support your local news media outlets and other organizations working on the ground in your neighborhoods. It may not seem like much, but small actions do lead to big changes—and both are what is needed to continue to protect the sanctity of information as a public good.
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