Jour­nal­ism un­der at­tack when needed most

Porterville Recorder - - OPINION -

When has the work of jour­nal­ists been more im­por­tant?

Was it 50 years ago, when Amer­ica’s in­ner cities were burn­ing and the Pen­tagon was hid­ing the scope and na­ture of the war in Viet­nam?

Or 100 years ago, when the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son was muz­zling news­pa­pers and churn­ing out pro­pa­ganda in sup­port of the na­tion’s in­volve­ment in what would be­come known as World War I?

Or now, when false­hoods metas­ta­size through so­cial me­dia, for­eign gov­ern­ments at­tempt to sub­vert our elec­tions, ci­ti­zens in­su­late them­selves from op­pos­ing view­points and the pres­i­dent de­rides as “fake news” the in­for­ma­tion he doesn’t like and calls news me­dia the “en­emy of the peo­ple?”

It’s not dif­fi­cult to make the case that it’s more im­por­tant now than ever that jour­nal­ists of­fer un­var­nished facts about im­por­tant is­sues af­ter ask­ing hard ques­tions.

But now, the time when jour­nal­ism is needed most, is when jour­nal­ism is un­der duress like never be­fore.

The num­ber of peo­ple in news­pa­per news­rooms has dropped by nearly half since 2006, ac­cord­ing to jour­nal­ism.org.

The pres­i­dent has launched a frontal as­sault on jour­nal­ism, and his words have had an im­pact on his fol­low­ers. A re­cent poll in­di­cates 43 per­cent of Repub­li­cans be­lieve Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump should “have the author­ity to close news out­lets en­gaged in bad be­hav­ior.”

Mean­while, long-de­vel­op­ing prob­lems pre­sented by so­cial me­dia con­tinue to fes­ter.

Face­book and Twit­ter muddy the in­for­ma­tion wa­ters. They ap­peal to peo­ple who want to read, hear and see only in­for­ma­tion with which they agree. And so­cial me­dia are vul­ner­a­ble to ma­nip­u­la­tion.

Pres­i­dent Trump turns to Twit­ter to de­liver what often is mis­in­for­ma­tion to mil­lions of fol­low­ers, by­pass­ing the fil­ter of jour­nal­ists ask­ing, “Is this true?”

For­eign gov­ern­ments have at­tempted to in­flu­ence our elec­tions by spread­ing lies through so­cial me­dia, a scheme that doesn’t work through tra­di­tional me­dia staffed by skep­ti­cal, fact-check­ing jour­nal­ists.

The fourth es­tate has been a check on the power of govern­ment since the Bill of Rights was penned. Thomas Jef­fer­son fa­mously wrote that if it were left to him to de­cide whether we should have a govern­ment with­out news­pa­pers or news­pa­pers with­out a govern­ment, “I should not hes­i­tate a mo­ment to pre­fer the lat­ter.”

Now, when facts are in­creas­ingly per­ceived as op­tional and bad in­for­ma­tion clogs the in­ter­net, we need jour­nal­ists ask­ing ques­tions, cut­ting through pro­pa­ganda and of­fer­ing fair and bal­anced re­ports.

Our repub­lic de­pends on it. Sid Schwartz is editor of The Gazette in Janesville, Wis. He has been a jour­nal­ist for 34 years. He pre­vi­ously served as pres­i­dent of the Wis­con­sin AP Ed­i­tors As­so­ci­a­tion and on the board of di­rec­tors of the As­so­ci­ated Press Man­ag­ing Ed­i­tors.

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