Sentinel newsroom staffers reflect on freedom of the press
February is noteworthy for presidential birthdays, but March has a Hail-to-the-Chief day, too. James Madison, our fourth president, was born March 16, 1751. Thanks to Madison’s advocacy of the Bill of Rights, his birthday has come to be celebrated as National Freedom of Information Day.
Among those championing freedom of information is the First Amendment Center, which has offices in Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C. According to its Web site, the center “serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.”
The center conducts an annual national survey on First Amendment issues. Survey questions include how much average Americans know about their First Amendment rights, whether Twitter and other social networking sites are reliable news sources and whether there should be a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the burning of the American flag.
Three other survey questions specifically address the rights and responsibilities of American media. They ask whether the press has too much freedom, whether the news media tries to report the news without bias and whether the news media should act as a watchdog on government.
Several newsroom staffers of The Daily Sentinel recently expressed their views on these issues. Not surprisingly, they supported the freedom, fairness and vigilance of the media but added that their profession demands a high sense of social responsibility, too. Here’s what graphics editor Robert Garcia and reporters Emily Anderson, Allen Gemaehlich and Dennis Webb thought:
Overall, do you think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, too little freedom to do what it wants, or is the amount of freedom the press has just about right? Why?
GEMAEHLICH: I think the amount of freedom the press has is just about right. I say that because, I believe, we work for the people to ensure our government from national to local is working in our best interest and to ensure safety from violence, first and foremost. We need to hold the government accountable for how they are spending taxpayer dollars.
ANDERSON: Overall, I’d say it’s just right. The First Amendment allows us to write the truth without fear of going to jail and getting sued. In some ways, there’s a bit too much freedom for faux journalism, like tabloids and gossipy blogs, but I don’t really consider that part of out-and-out journalism.
GARCIA: I think it has just enough freedom to do what it needs. While I feel that the media needs to hold government agencies and, for example, utility companies accountable, I hold back when the media tries to interfere with an individual’s personal situation, especially when it does not impact the general populace, e.g. Tiger Woods.
WEBB: I’d say things are generally about right. We always can quibble about wanting more access to public records, fewer closed-door government meetings and the like. But by and large American journalists do enjoy a broad right to report and comment on the news as they see fit, without much fear of legal consequence as long as we work in a responsible manner.
Do you strongly agree, mildly agree, mildly disagree or strongly disagree to this statement: Overall, the news media tries to report the news without bias. Why?
GARCIA: I strongly agree with this statement. In my 25 years here at the Sentinel and another 10 with other media outlets, I truly believe that for the most part, the media attempts to get both sides of the story, even if at times stating that one side offered “no comment.”
GEMAEHLICH: I strongly agree. There are some very good people in the business.
WEBB: I generally agree in the case of mainstream newspapers. I think it’s less the case for some television news networks, and particularly for some Web-based news sites that make no secret of biases that align with their funding sources.
ANDERSON: Depends who you’re asking. If it’s Fox News or MSNBC or a certain kind of paper that blatantly states it has an agenda, I’d mildly to strongly disagree, depending on whether it’s an anchor or a pundit reporting the news.
When it comes to daily newspapers, nightly news and radio news, I’d say most people are making a concerted effort to wash all bias from their minds and put out an honest product. Sometimes people assume journalists are more biased than they really are simply because there are more quotes from one side or another, but usually that’s just a product of too many people not returning calls, refusing to talk or being unable to talk in accordance with their case or job.
Do you strongly agree, mildly agree, mildly disagree or strongly disagree to this statement: It is important for our democracy that the news media acts as a watchdog on government. Why?
WEBB: It always has been important. It’s our taxpayers’ dollars being used by government, and it must be accountable for how it spends them. Also, the decisions government makes, from waging war to dealing with the poor, are made on our behalf, and it is the media’s job to question whether the decisions made are the best for the people government represents.
GARCIA: I strongly agree with this statement. The bottom line is that all of us are taxed in one way, shape or form. All government entities work for us. How they behave and spend our tax dollars should always be public record.
GEMAEHLICH: I strongly agree. Greed is at the root of all evil and should not be allowed in any government. We are the only source to keep an eye on politicians trying to make money off taxpayers’ dollars for their own benefit.
ANDERSON: I strongly agree, and would add journalists should be watchdogs for everyone and everything, not just government. It’s just as important to make sure it doesn’t go unnoticed when a teacher steals money from a school fundraiser or a police interrogator hits a suspect.
But especially with all levels of government, it seems especially important to keep an eye out, because if you don’t report something, political figures are likely to repeat mistakes (whether they know they’re mistakes or not) until they’re caught. And it’s rare someone else that has to go to another job all day has the time or sometimes the knowledge to catch these things.
More information about the First Amendment Center may be found at http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org.