The crisis of identity and ethics facing journalists today

Violations of press freedoms in 2020 higher than previous three years


Physical violence towards reporters and violations of press freedoms have increased during the months of Black Lives Matter protests following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. President Trump has even described one attack on reporters as “a beautiful sight.” (Photo by Emily Mello)

The COVID-19 pandemic reached a grim milestone in the United States this September, with over 200,000 Americans now confirmed to have died from the deadly virus. President Donald Trump has downplayed the severity of the disease throughout the year, holding press conferences that have made light of the threat and describing it as “the new hoax” of his Democrat opponents at a February campaign rally.

In addition to his false claims about the virus and how other countries around the world have responded to it, Trump has characterized the media as purveyors of “fake news” at his many rallies. His history of taking to social media to attack and discredit the media to rally his supporters is well documented.

At a Sept. 22 rally, he praised violence directed at members of the press, describing a National Guardsman assaulting a reporter as “a beautiful sight”.

His statements come at a time when violence and harassment towards journalists committed by law enforcement and average U.S. citizens have risen. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, members of the press have experienced over 825 cases of aggression, including 63 arrests and 201 physical attacks connected to coverage of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Tim Swanson, a former adviser to the American River Current and now the media and communications manager for the city of Sacramento, says he believes there’s never been a more important time for American journalism despite these challenges.

“How we do it has changed with the technology available to us today, but the fundamental mission of journalism has not,” Swanson says. “It is still very important work.”

“Fake news” existed long before the Trump presidency, but saw a resurgence in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Defeated presidential candidate Hilary Clinton used “fake news” to criticize the malicious social media posts, fake news stories and propaganda that hit social media over the course of her campaign. The term has seen regular use by Trump and his supporters to discredit reporters and negative news stories.

“When I hear the term ‘fake news’ I find it very alarming because oftentimes it is not fake news,” Swanson says. “They’re just inconvenient facts for people in power.”

Ginny LaRoe, the programs and outreach director for the First Amendment Coalition, ARC alumnae, and a former journalist with over a decade of experience in the field has personal experience with these attacks.

“The first time I was accused of being biased in 2002 or 2003, was when a story I wrote in my 20s was picked up by the Drudge report,” LaRoe says. “There was a comment stream, and there were people who accused me of bias, being a ‘frigid bitch,’ and someone who would have a ‘great career at the New York Times’, among other things.”

According to LaRoe, women journalists of color, and anyone from a marginalized group “can tell you about threats, insults and attempts to discredit the work that they’ve experienced in the field.”

Tim Swanson says he believes these attacks have had a measurable effect on public trust in the media.

“I don’t know one journalist who has created fake news. So to have people call out ‘fake news’, to say these blanket statements, it kinda erodes any commonality between people,” Swanson says. “If we can’t even agree upon the facts, how can we have conversations about anything?”

The attacks on journalists have not been limited to the discrediting of news stories, but also to pressure journalists to “take sides”, according to Ginny LaRoe.

“I hear from newsroom leaders and journalists that they are increasingly being pressured from one side or the other to take stronger stances and opinions on things,” LaRoe says. “At the same time, there are people who are saying to be on guard against the appearance of the bias.”

Swanson says he also believes the push for journalists to take sides on issues has influenced reporting across the fourth estate.

“I feel like reporters [are] expected to be personalities, which has had a notable effect on the quality of reporting in some cases,” Swanson says. “But I wouldn’t just blame media outlets. I think our media consumption habits play a major role in it. One of the most difficult parts of journalism in 2020 is balancing personality and reporting. You’re seeing a lot more people describe themselves as ‘advocacy journalists’ rather than just being a journalist.”

One popular example of this is Fox News’ Sean Hannity, an occasionally self-described advocacy journalist. Starting as a controversial college talk radio host, he went on to grow massively popular with his own radio show. His popularity has influenced networks to find their own set of voices to center time slots around.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, says that evening talk shows are “opinionated by design.”

“Some evidence is offered for claims but the reporting is not necessarily solid,” Edmonds says. “It is a fair and complicated question whether some of these outlets lean liberal and are heavily adversarial to the president—but his constant lying presents a special case.”

Current events have also challenged traditional views on objectivity in journalism. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this year have spurred the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. The events surrounding them have potentially influenced journalists across the media. 

“Many younger journalists and journalists of color do not aspire to objectivity,” Edmonds says. “I have no problem with journalism that is personal and engages BLM and full representation of diversity. But I am old school in thinking that does not mingle with general reporting for a community with a range of viewpoints.”

The primary weapon in the fight against the perception of being “fake news” is transparency. Swanson cites the Sacramento Bee as an example due to its willingness to be open with both its readers and critics.

“When the Bee releases a large feature investigation,” Swanson says, “they often run a sidebar to the story explaining how they performed the investigation, and why they started it.”

LaRoe says she is encouraged by news organizations’ efforts to educate the public about the difference between opinion and news, and their openness regarding ethics and standards. She is less confident about their ability to support the journalists taking the brunt of the criticism.

“The media risks losing talented people at a time when we know we need to be creating more inclusive and diverse news organizations,” LaRoe says.

With the November election less than a month away, President Trump has ramped up his attacks on the media. After contracting COVID-19 and staying briefly at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Trump tweeted, without evidence, that the “Fake News Media refuses to discuss how good the Economy and Stock Market, including JOBS under the Trump Administration, are doing.” It is clear that even with increased transparency in their process, journalists will continue to face attacks on their integrity and attempts to discredit inconvenient stories.

“I think we are fractured as a country, and I don’t know how we can come back together,” Swanson says. “But I do know that sunlight is a great cure for things, transparency and holding ourselves to that high standard will continue to be our most important tool.”