Are you a reporter who goes above and beyond expectations to hold your elected and government officials accountable? Or how about a citizens group working behind the scenes to make public records more accessible in underprivileged neighborhoods?
I’d like to talk to you. Here’s why:
I didn’t know much about press freedoms until I went to a small private college in Indiana where the campus newspaper was bound by chains of censorship. As a freshman I remember flipping through the paper and finding articles that read more like press releases.
It didn’t take a trained eye to notice. Most of my friends called the paper “a joke,” and bugged me about my decision to join the staff near the end of sophomore year.
Sure, I saw the newspaper’s flaws. But I couldn’t pull myself away from conversations with some of our college reporters who felt unable to print the words they desperately wanted to say, lest the black ink on their pages turn to black marks on their records or worse, an untimely end to the paper all together.
You see, at private universities that pay for their student newspapers’ operating costs (rent for the building, computers for production), administrators technically have the final say about what can and cannot be printed and whether the paper can even exist.
But during my four years at college, my campus newspaper made a turnaround. We started conversations that leveled a campus apartment complex and renovated an out-of-code athletic facility, and just to toot our own horn once more, we were named “Journalism Website of the Year” by the Society of Professional Journalists my senior year.
All of this to say that my time as a college reporter taught me a valuable lesson. When you’re on staff at one of these private schools, you’re privy to a perspective on the free press and the First Amendment that (in my humble opinion) most journalists don’t realize until they have their first run-in with the law some ten-years into their career.
Anyway, when you’re on staff, you realize you’re working under an administration that’s always going to try to tip the scales in their favor and stop you from finding flaws in the system. (Sound familiar?) Well, as a reporter, you either dive into the deep waters and learn to swim on your own, or you stay in the shallow end of the reporting pool and print press releases. There’s really no room to wade in the waters in-between.
Now that U.S. news outlets are waking up to a similar reality with the federal government, I can only wonder: Will we reporters learn to swim on our own, or will we stay in the shallow end, clinging to our petty arguments and political ideologies like water floaties?
I’d like to think the former, but a recent article by Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian has me wondering: What is it that we— journalism junkies, First Amendment freaks and open government advocates — are actually doing to lead the grassroots fights for the free press? Are we diving into the deep end of pool, and if we are, are we sinking or swimming?
Sure, we could have a federal shield law in our favor soon. Consider that the government tossing us a water-logged noodle. We’ll still have to kick to keep our heads above water, and Greenwald says that so far we’re not really holding our own weight. We’re not claiming control of the press on our own terms, that is. Instead, we’re waiting around for the government to pull us ashore, slide water wings up our slippery arms again and help us back into the shallow end where they can keep an eye on us.
So I’m out to prove Greenwald wrong — just like I was out to show my college classmates that a private school newspaper doesn’t have to be an administrative PR tool.
As SPJ members, journalists and free press advocates, let’s not grant our government the right to decide how we report the news. Let’s ban together and claim our freedoms for ourselves.
I know from firsthand experience that it is possible. And maybe you do, too.
The rest of this summer, I’m going to write weekly profiles about ordinary reporters and citizens making extraordinary strides for free information around the country. But I’m only one person with a limited number of contacts, so to make this blog successful, I’m going to need your help.
If you know anyone (or any group) diving in and creating grassroots change or kicking against the repressive norm, share their story with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s make a splash to show Greenwald and our government what American journalism is really about.
Cannon balls away!
Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.