While watching coverage of the Democratic debates along with my normal intake of national news, I switched between CNN, ABC, FOX-News, CBS and others. I read news articles online and in print. Even after two years, I continue to be struck by how one event can be seen so differently by so many news organizations — nearly all of which had a clear slant, whether for or against.
When our forefathers included Freedom of the Press in the Constitution, they knew it was a double-edged sword with as much potential to do harm as it could to ensure the exchange of factual communication free from governmental interference.
However, they knew it was a risk that needed to be taken if America was going to have a chance at establishing a peaceful democracy — one that is protected by the intellect of an informed society.
One of the key ingredients to a foundation strong enough to support the weight of democracy within our Constitution is the freedom given to the press. Its intention is to guarantee a level of transparency within the government and, just as importantly, keep government from manipulating the information its citizenry receives.
Shortly after the Missouri School of Journalism was established in 1906, its founder, Walter Williams, wrote The Journalist’s Creed. Within it are these words:
I believe that clear thinking, truthful statements, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism, and that the supreme test of any journalist is the measure of their public service.
Journalists are liaisons of trust between the American people and those who govern, whether it be in Washington D.C., state government, a national corporation or with local officials and institutions.
The trust we place in journalism is one of the cornerstones of maintaining a unified, peaceful society. Without the trust and belief that we are an informed people, the ensuing uncertainty is fertile ground for chaos, mistrust and division.
Today’s Information Age, thanks to the internet and social media, has forged its own two-edged sword with the potential to do as much harm as good. In the late 1950s, iconic newsman Edward R. Murrow recognized this paradox. News reporting was being transformed from the purely word-driven medium of radio into a much more powerful visual medium of television.
In 1955, during an awards dinner where he was the keynote speaker, Murrow spoke of the new television medium and the paradox it presented for journalists and our society; it’s a paradox we find ourselves facing once again in the age of social-media-style journalism — and in particular, the ease in which assumption can be passed along as fact.
In his speech, Murrow challenged us to utilize the new medium of television as a way to enhance our understanding of issues and each other. “Otherwise,” he said in his final remark, “television is nothing more than lights in a box.”
As we enter into the upcoming election season — both nationally and within our own communities — we need to ask ourselves whether the age of information will enhance our understanding or simply distract us with the lights inside the small boxes in our hands.