As I write this, World Press Freedom Day is being observed but not throughout the entire world, unfortunately. In Russia, for example, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich remains incarcerated for the crime of telling the truth as a journalist. We, fortunately, still have freedom of the press in America but we shouldn’t take it for granted because it is fragile and easily lost.

In many autocratic regimes like China and Russia, reporting the news truthfully and objectively can get a journalist detained, perhaps forever. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that the number of journalists who were imprisoned in 2022 has doubled since it peaked in 2015. At least 67 of them were killed. 2022 was the deadliest year for journalists in Mexico. Some governments are easily offended by the truth or by even discussing controversial subjects. During a trip to China a few years ago, we were warned by the tour guide to refrain from even mentioning Taiwan or certain other controversial topics or risk being detained.

Could our own freedom of the press in America be at risk? It could indeed if the media continues to take sides in reporting news and becomes a public relations tool of a political party which is not to say that the news media can’t express opinion or favor a political party or candidate. There are, to be sure, liberal and conservative media outlets which is fine as long as articles allegedly reporting news are objective and free of political bias and opinion is confined to the opinion section or otherwise clearly identified as opinion. But often, particularly on television, for example, “Breaking News” turns out to be opinion.

Newspapers are disappearing rapidly and, as they do, so are jobs in journalism. The public seems more interested in the entertainment value of television and radio than in its role in educating, informing and acting as a watchdog against government abuse. A free and honest press remains an essential check on government excesses but to fill this role it must be trusted. There’s the rub.

According to a Gallup poll only 34% of Americans trust the mass media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” Only 7% have a “great deal of confidence” that it will and 27% have a “fair amount.” 28%, however, say they don’t have much confidence and 38% say they don’t have any at all. While confidence rates have been declining for several years, 2022 marked the first year that the percent of Americans with no trust in the media at all is higher than the percent with a great deal or fair amount combined. In a recent survey released by the Gallup and Knight Foundation, approximately half of respondents indicated that they believed national news organizations intentionally misled, misinformed or persuaded the public to adopt a particular point of view through their reporting. Only one quarter believed that the media did not intentionally mislead.

The rapid pace of news reporting and easy access to it should ensure that Americans are on top of the news but the shear volume of it may have caused information overload to take effect. 61% said this makes the news more difficult to understand according to one survey.

Back in ancient days when I was taking journalism courses and editing my college newspaper, reporters were praised for having a nose for news and they worked hard to find it wherever it might be before their colleagues did. But even on a slow news day, they didn’t resort to inventing it. Today they seem to search for sensational news or scandal, preferably involving persons or causes they don’t agree with or approve of.

The press used to be trusted by the public and depended upon to be accurate and objective. Not so much anymore. You can still pretty much tell someone’s political orientation by the newspapers or periodicals they read even though the surveys indicate that half of them apparently believe they are being misled by a media they no longer trust.

VOL. 113, NO. 19 - May 10, 2023

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