Press freedom means what?

Posted 05.08.11

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | Last Tuesday was World Press Freedom Day. You weren't celebrating? Don't worry, there's another way to mark the event, besides lifting a pint at l'Autre Oeil with a journalist, one that lasts all year long. It's simple: don't take our media's independence for granted. Ignoring "press freedom" is the best way to lose it, or to lose whatever's left of it.

Media people, journalists and editors, value the concept, but rarely do much to guarantee it. The best way for them (us) to do this is to take press independence as an obligation, not as a right. We journalists must exercise this right, not merely rant about it.

Let me interject that press freedom refers to news reporting. It is true that opinion pieces, including our editorials, while part of journalism, are aimed at expressing opinions, arguing for certain views and against other views. Opinions and commentaries are not expected to be even-handed and fair to all sides -- they are to argue a point (based, we hope, on the good judgment and news-experience of the editorialists). And we encourage readers to respond with their views and their own arguments.

It is news reporting that must be fair and as factually all-inclusive as is possible, given the reality of deadlines and of the often-evasive positions of people in the news. We all have an obligation to protect our freedom of the press by insisting that it be practiced (journalists' obligation) -- and insisting that it be presented in the media (news consumers').

We have just completed an election campaign in Canada that gave ample opportunity to note prejudiced reporting -- and ample opportunities for journalists to bury vital questions in the entertainment fluff the media often presents as news. Journalists must insist, must even pursue leads outside their work environment if necessary, in order to protect their freedom and their own professional dignity.

As for readers and media-watchers, your obligation in protecting press freedom is to not just turn off.

This has been happening, big-time. The daily press, plus network radio and television, have suffered major audience losses, and although the popular wisdom is to attribute this to competitive new technologies -- social media -- that's only part of the picture. In Canada, our media has not fulfilled its mandate well, has not satisfied its audience, and they have been looking elsewhere.

Now the buzz in the corporate media's boardrooms is to go beyond print and broadcasting and grab new media; but if the mainstream big media treats social media with the same distain and lack of depth as they've treated their own old media, do they honestly expect they can keep their audience? If commercial interests and corporate politics comes to dominate social media -- as is already happening -- can we expect its audience to stay tuned in?

And if no one is tuned in, or turning pages, what will that mean for freedom of the press?

Copyright © 2011 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/05.11