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Acts of Journalism: Defining PressFreedom in the Digital Age

The rise of digital technology and the democratizing power of the Internet have fundamentally challenged journalism

By Josh Stearns, Freepress.net

Click here to read the full report. An excerpt follows below.

The rise of professional journalism in the 20th century helped create a certain image of reporters. This image, which the industry itself reinforced, asserted that only “professional” journalists engaged in journalism. But that wasn’t always that case, and the rise of digital technology and the democratizing power of the Internet have fundamentally challenged that image. 

Today, more people than ever are participating in journalism. People are breaking news on Twitter, covering their communities on Facebook, live streaming, distributing news via email and writing in-depth blogs on issues of civic and community significance. Some of these people are what we’d consider “traditional” journalists working on new platforms, but many are not.

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As more and more people commit acts of journalism, the lines between who is and who isn’t a journalist get blurrier — and the distinction becomes less useful:

Nineteen-year-old Karina Vargas was on her way home one night when she stepped off her train to see police arresting a group of young men at the Fruitvale station in Oakland, Calif. The police seemed to be using excessive force, so Vargas pulled out her cellphone and began recording. As the conflict escalated, Vargas walked closer. She was about 15 feet away when police shot Oscar Grant in the back. Officers tried to confiscate Vargas’ camera after the shooting but she refused. Her footage was used by the local CBS station and in the eventual court case against the officer.

Jersey Shore Hurricane News is a Facebook-only news site that has become a critical source for local journalism, with more followers on Facebook than WNYC and ProPublica combined. The site is run by Justin Auciello, an urban planner with no journalism background, but a deep commitment to his community. His work has been recognized by the White House and is relied on by journalists across the state and nation.

WordPress-3.0WordPress-3.0Lee Roy Chapman is an amateur historian in Tulsa, Okla., whose research led him to a story no mainstream media outlet in the state would touch. After years of digging through public records, a search that took him from Oklahoma to New York City, he uncovered a terrible history of violence and racism that surrounded Tate Brady, the founder of Tulsa. A new journalism startup, This Land Press, published Chapman’s work and forever changed the way the people of Oklahoma viewed Brady.

There are hundreds of stories like this. Around the country people are committing acts of journalism that are serving their communities, influencing national debates and changing the face of journalism. As barriers to entry erode, experiments in citizen-driven storytelling are expanding.

We already see news organizations collaborating and crowdsourcing research and reporting projects with their audiences and communities. But what protections, if any, do we afford those citizen collaborators?

As our understanding of journalism changes, so too must our understanding of press freedom. At the same time that journalism is undergoing tremendous change, those who practice it are facing momentous attacks.

Vargas faced real and direct threats from police in the course of her efforts. Many other journalists have faced pressure from powerful government or corporate interests. Corporations like Koch Industries, for example, have mounted aggressive campaigns against journalists they disagree with.

new-twitternew-twitterMore troubling, though, is the fact that the same tools that are democratizing media making have also expanded government surveillance. The past year has exposed a range of new threats to press freedom in the United States, from the NSA’s massive surveillance program and the Justice Department’s secret seizure of Associated Press phone records to restrictions on press credentials and laws that limit the First Amendment right to record.

These threats have inspired new calls to strengthen press freedom protections. President Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to revise his department’s guidelines for dealing with the press, and he called on Congress to pass a new shield law protecting journalists’ sources.

In response, members of Congress have introduced the Free Flow of Information Act, which just passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill is awaiting a full vote in the Senate, and the House has yet to begin debate on its own version of the legislation. These efforts have sparked a renewed interest in questions about who is a journalist — and imbued them with a heightened sense of urgency.

In today’s climate, it makes no sense for press freedom protections to apply only to a narrow class of professionals. Everyday Americans are central to the future of journalism as news consumers, distributors and creators. We need to push for policies that protect these new participants. It’s not enough to protect traditional journalists; we must protect all acts of journalism.

Debates about press freedom are already happening in courtrooms and on Capitol Hill, but for true change we need to engage communities and culture. Cultural critic Jeff Chang has argued that culture change is the dress rehearsal for political change. He points to civil rights and gay rights as examples where we saw cultural shifts precede political shifts. This is no different for press rights.

Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has argued that “A country’s constitutional culture is made up of the stories we tell each other about the kind of nation we are.” If we want to protect all acts of journalism, we need to change the stories we tell about press freedom.

Press freedom today is not just about Daniel Ellsberg and Deep Throat; it’s also about Karina Vargas and Justin Auciello. Press freedom today must be conceived as a broad set of rights applicable to all Americans.

If you are interested in citizen journalism Click here to read further.

Josh Stearns

Journalism and Public Media Campaign Director This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Josh SternsJosh Sterns

Josh Sterns

Josh develops online and offline strategy, outreach and organizing efforts. He has published numerous reports on press freedom, journalism, media consolidation and public media, and speaks regularly about community engagement, activism and the future of journalism.

He also directs the Free Press internship and fellowship program. Before joining Free Press, Josh coordinated policy and communications efforts for service-learning and higher education organizations. He holds a B.A. in English from St. Lawrence University and an M.A. in American studies from UMass Amherst.

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