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Threats Against a Free Press Harm Us All

Threats against journalists — on the rise both in the United States and around the world — are contributing to an erosion of trust in a free press that is the oxygen of any self-governed democracy.

By Tim Franklin
Fall 2018

Medill alumna Susan Page, the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for USA Today, remembers well the first time she interviewed candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

“He said, ‘Susan, I so admire your work,’” Page ’73 recounted in a panel discussion at Medill late last year. “And I thought, ‘Really?’”

This was, after all, a man whose news diet consists of more cable TV than print and a politician who has called journalists sleazes, “the enemy of the American people” and “third rate.”

Trump’s compliment of Page juxtaposed with his criticism of the news media illustrate a great irony known by Washington insiders: The president privately covets the approval of journalists even as he publicly berates them.

Elisabeth Bumiller, another Medill grad and the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, said at the same campus event that the president’s constant broadsides about “fake news” amount to “politics that plays to the base nicely” and added that “none of us take it seriously.”

But Bumiller ’77 also noted a consequence of the pervasive, hostile rhetoric. “I do have concerns about threats against journalists,” she said. “That is very worrying.”

Indeed, Bumiller is correct. Threats against journalists are on the rise both in the United States and around the world, an alarming trend.

There are even bigger systemic effects from the vitriolic attacks. They’re contributing to an erosion of trust in a free press that is the oxygen of any self-governed democracy. And they’re exacerbating a partisan divide that already has many Americans nestled inside their own filter bubbles, putting “red” and “blue” allegiances ahead of actual facts.

The ripple effects are being felt beyond the Capital Beltway. While surveys show people trust local news outlets more than national ones, there are troubling signs. A Pew Research Center study last year showed a mere 24 percent of Republicans said they have a lot of trust in information they get from local news organizations. That shows this problem is deeply rooted.

Eighty percent of journalists work outside the media centers of Washington, New York and Los Angeles. They’re not players in the D.C. food fight. They cover city councils, community schools, local colleges, crime, neighborhood organizations, small businesses, high school sports and entertainment. 

They mostly do it for modest pay, and they toil against the backdrop of increasing financial pressures spawned by the digital disruption that has shattered their business models. They do it because they believe in the essential missions of connecting citizens in their communities, helping them live their everyday lives and holding institutions accountable. There’s nothing fake about that news.

Their jobs can be dangerous. One local journalist — a cherished former colleague of mine — was murdered in June along with four co-workers in the newsroom of the Annapolis Capital Gazette by a gunman allegedly aggrieved over unflattering coverage in the paper.

Have presidents of both parties attacked the press? Of course. Do journalists share responsibility for the trust problem in news? Of course. Are they “the enemy of the American people”? Far from it.

Tim Franklin is senior associate dean and a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Before joining Medill in June 2017, Franklin was president of the Poynter Institute, a leading international school for journalists and a media think tank.

tim franklin journalism professor and senior associate dean at medill

Journalism professor Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Medill. Jenna Braunstein Photography

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