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1.3: Why Study Journalism?

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    "Life only demands from the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible—not to have run away."

    - Dag Hammarskjöld

    So why do you want to study journalism? Only kidding, I know why: you have fifth period free. No, actually, I'm not kidding—I want you to answer the question. Think about why you want to study journalism, and why you want to learn how to report and write for a newspaper. First, think about why good journalism matters in the world. It does, very much. I learned this when I was your age, when the Pentagon Papers, and then Watergate, were the breaking stories.

    The Pentagon Papers, in case you don't know, was a top-secret study of the Vietnam War commissioned by the U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1967, while the war was still raging. The study described extensive illegal military maneuvers the American people knew nothing about, including American bombing of Laos and Cambodia, sovereign nations that were not even in the war.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A map created by the CIA that was published as part of the Pentagon Papers.

    In 1971, the study was leaked to The New York Times by a man named Daniel Ellsberg, and then The Times's editors had a crucial decision to make: Should they publish a top-secret classified document? If they did, the government might censor the paper on the grounds of national security and might prosecute Ellsberg for treason. Many lawyers argued the paper should not publish; the editors, however, and the paper's lawyers, believed the First Amendment gave the newspaper the right to tell the American people what their government was doing. They also believed the study would not aid the enemy or jeopardize national security, and so they began publishing excerpts. The government sued to stop the publication, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the suit unconstitutional. Ellsberg turned himself in as the source of the leak and was charged with treason, but the charges were dismissed. Publication of the Pentagon Papers led to protests in the streets and, in time, changed the course of the war.

    As for Watergate, this was the name of a secret illegal political operation run by President Richard Nixon and his staff. The Washington Post uncovered it little by little in the course of a superb investigation undertaken by two very young, very dogged reporters who were supported by their editors and by The Post's publisher, Katharine Graham, who did not back down when the Nixon administration threatened to cripple her paper financially. The Post's Watergate stories led the Justice Department to indict and convict several of the president's advisors and led to President's Nixon's impeachment and resignation in 1974.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Demonstrators in Washington, D.C. demanding Nixon's impeachment in October 1973, as evidence mounted against the president and his staff in the Watergate case.

    These two stories are iconic—they represent the pinnacle of a free press acting as the watchdog for its society—but every day, in stories published all around you, citizens are served and protected by this country's free press. Think, for example, about CNN's coverage of Hurricane Katrina and what a difference it made that the press was on the scene when the catastrophe unfolded. Or go to the website of The New Orleans Times-Picayune and read how the paper covered that storm's aftermath, literally for years. Or read today's Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or New York Times, and consider what it means that the world KNOWS the stories they published.

    Let's consider one story in particular, which was published in The New York Times on October 29, 2006. Written by correspondent Sharon LaFraniere, the story, "Africa's World of Forced Labor, in a 6-Year-Old's Eyes," tells the tale of children in Ghana who work as slaves on fishing boats. They shiver through miserable hours of labor, flinch beneath beatings, and collapse at night onto dirt floors, where they sleep wearing the rags they work in. Some of these children are as young as six. Their parents leased them as indentured servants, and they are among 1.2 million children trafficked as slaves in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. You should read the story all the way through and then ask yourself these questions: Who cares that this information has been unearthed by a reporter and published? Who wishes the information had not been exposed? What difference does it make that the world has been told?

    Then read a story on page A-3 of your favorite newspaper—or page 7 or 17, it doesn't matter—and select a story that is fairly short, that you can read in a couple of minutes. Now ask yourself the same questions: Who cares that this is in the paper? Why does it matter that readers are aware of it? You'll probably see that Ms. LaFraniere's story is a big story, a critical story, really, for the world to know, since it exposes a ghastly crime, and you're likely to see that your page A-3 story is a smaller story but still important, still a record of some true thing that has just happened in real time, something that deserves to be exposed to the light of day, to the gaze of the people.

    I'm sure both the large and smaller stories gave you information you hadn't otherwise known, and I imagine Ms. LaFraniere's story also made you feel something—for instance, that someone should really STOP THAT SLAVERY FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! And your passion would be priceless—your passion would justify every claim I could ever make about the role of journalism in society, its crucial importance to the world. Unfortunately, your passion about the children in Ghana doesn't automatically translate into action on anybody's part—even, at the moment, on yours, because you are a student after all, not a diplomat or a warrior—and those with responsibility for stopping the enslavement of children in Africa might have no response to Ms. LaFraniere's story.

    This can be hideously depressing, but it illustrates an important point, which is that a journalist's power is limited to seeking out the truth and reporting it. After that, it's up to the readers—that is, it's up to the citizens—to respond. It is up to the citizens to change things if they have the power to do so, or to urge those in power to change things, or, if they live in democracies, to demand it. And we'll consider all of that in a moment.

    For now, though, let's get back to Ms. LaFraniere. It seems possible that she risked her life to get that story, and, indeed, all over the world, journalists risk their lives for stories all the time. Here's a recent roundup, in a press release from the International News Safety Institute (INSI):

    Arab Spring fuels bleak winter for news media in 2012[1]

    8 Aug 2012

    LONDON – At least 70 journalists and support staff were killed covering the news in the first half of this year in one of the bloodiest periods of recent times.

    Fifteen were confirmed dead in Syria alone between January and June, according to the biannual Killing The Messenger survey of news media casualties carried out for INSI by Cardiff School of Journalism.

    The next worst countries were Nigeria, where seven unidentified newspaper staff were killed by a bomb, Brazil, Somalia, Indonesia, where five journalists died in a plane crash, and Mexico.

    The toll compares with 124 for the whole of 2011 and 56 for the first seven months of last year. And 70 may be a conservative figure as INSI has recorded the deaths of an additional 30 news people where it was unclear whether the killings were related to their work.

    INSI invites anyone with more information on any of those unexplained deaths to make contact.

    "Journalists are more than ever in the cross-hairs of the enemies of freedom," said INSI Director Rodney Pinder.

    "Despite some encouraging international political moves to halt the murder, the gun and the bomb remain the favoured method of censorship in far too many countries.

    "Each and every killing chokes the free flow of information without which free societies cannot function."

    The survey highlighted again that despite the Syrian conflagration the great majority of news media deaths around the world are in peacetime. Forty-three journalists died in countries officially at peace, victims mostly of vicious criminals, often abetted by corrupt security forces, politicians and business interests.

    Most of the dead were shot or bombed, but some suffered appalling ends - beaten, tortured, strangled, stabbed or decapitated.

    The third biggest cause of death was road accidents, every year a particularly wasteful loss.

    Scandalously, most of the killers of journalists continue to get away with it. In the first half of this year only one person was identified in connection with 47 targeted killings worldwide.

    The rate of impunity for murder of a journalists [sic] has remained constant at around 90 per cent globally for the past 10 years - undoubtedly fuelling more of the same.

    As a safety organisation, INSI records all deaths of journalists and other news workers in the course of their duties, whether deliberate or accidental.

    After reading this press release, you are probably clutching your little face with an Edvard Munch scream, thinking, No, no, no; this journalism class is too depressing. There's still time to switch courses. I'm out of here.

    But the bottom line here is just the opposite of depressing. The bottom line here is not that humans steal children or run thieving corporations and corrupt governments or seize power with grotesque brutality and then behead the journalists who expose them. The bottom line here is that yes, humans do all these things, but journalists keep telling their stories.

    And as long as journalists tell the stories, criminals—even criminal gangs and governments—cannot hide their crimes.

    So now it must be dawning on you that to live in a country where the press is not censored or intimidated (or hunted down and shot through the head), and where, in fact, the people's freedom of speech is protected by the judicial branch of the government, is to enjoy a crucial liberty. So you can stand on the street corner holding a peace flag, and the police can't run you off—or you can write a story about the peace flags for a newspaper, and the police can't shut that paper down. And the newspaper can cover stories not only about peace flags, but also about slavery in Africa and corruption and lies in the White House.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A map displaying results of the 2008 Press Freedom Index, an annual assessment of press freedom in countries around the world conducted by the Reporters Without Borders organization.

    This, of course, is why America's founding fathers wrote the first amendment to their constitution: "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The founders wanted their government not to repress its people but to govern with their consent, and a free press was their insurance policy.

    Interestingly, in the 18th century, such a free press was as radical an idea as the concept of democracy it was designed to protect. It had first been expounded by two London journalists, who wrote an article in 1721 under the pen name "Cato." At the time in Britain, it was a crime to criticize the royal government, and, the more true the criticism, the more severe the penalty for publishing it. In other words, you were guilty of libel if you wrote the truth. Cato argued that the exact opposite should be true—that you could not be guilty of libel if you wrote the truth, and this idea took root in the colonies among revolutionary journalists, including Benjamin Franklin, who published Cato's writings.[2]

    The concept of a free press was born in America along with the country itself; though, just how free that press could truly be was not established right away. Indeed, the same men who wrote the First Amendment soon passed the Sedition Act of 1798. Designed to protect the infant nation under threat of war from France, the act prohibited publication of any "false, scandalous, or malicious writing" about the government, and under the act, two dozen men were arrested and their papers shut down. But when he became president, Thomas Jefferson declared the act unconstitutional, and it expired in 1801. In the two hundred years since then, the nation's courts have ruled again and again in favor of journalists' right to publish the truth, until gradually "the notion of a free press as a bulwark of liberty became embedded in American legal doctrine."[3]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): A painting depicting the signing of the Constitution of the United States.

    "No other nation gives its journalists so much constitutional protection, and as a result, so much responsibility," write veteran journalists Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser in their book, The News About the News.

    We will spend plenty of time examining what it means to be a responsible journalist. In my opinion, that is the only type of journalist one can be. If a person isn't responsible at the work, she isn't really a journalist; she's just pretending to be a journalist while she wallows in the glory of her byline and believes, in her secret heart, that what's most important about her article is not the story at all, but the fact that SHE wrote it. And, the truth is, some journalists do work this way, but they are never the very best ones, as you will be, for they never really internalize what it means to defend the democracy with their personal resources, namely their energy and skill, their judgment, intellect, and courage.

    For now, though, let's put all that away—we'll get back to it in later chapters. I want you to switch gears and stop thinking about your responsibilities as a future journalist. Instead—and this is the second thing I wanted you to consider—think about your responsibilities as a citizen.

    If you are from a democratic country—America or otherwise—you have not only the right of free speech, but also the right to do something about the information you receive. So think about it. When a journalist's story is published, she rubs the back of her neck (she's been at that keyboard for weeks), sticks all her notes in a file drawer, crosses her fingers, and lets the chips fall where they may. She cares about her story—of course she cares about it deeply—but her job is over. Now it belongs to the people to do with it what they will. If they even read it.

    And that is you—the people. If you take advantage of a democracy's gifts—your freedom to receive uncensored information, to begin with, and then, right up there on my personal all-time hit-list of privileges, your right to hold your government accountable with your voice and your vote—then I wonder if you feel you have any responsibilities in return? You are required to read the newspaper every day for this course, obviously, but forget about the course for the moment. Just as a citizen, do you have a responsibility to stay informed, to read the news that journalists have dug up on your behalf—even the boring news? Why or why not?

    If you read the news, do you have any obligation to respond to it? And if so, what exactly would that obligation be? So naturally I believe you should make time in your day to read the stories that journalists have reported, verified, and written up on your behalf—make the time to think about these stories, to live up to your end of the democracy by holding your elected officials accountable with your vote (or at least to do that when you turn 18). Indeed, I believe these things should be habits, and you should feel just the tiniest bit superior to people who don't have these commitments—and you should never, ever date them! Not that it's my business...

    But I'm sure you already know all this and are one step ahead of me, thinking, "Well, what if I do read important stories and stay informed and go to the polls and vote, and then I still don't really have an impact on things, like the child slavery in Africa."

    And I say: Nevertheless, it is crucially important that you know the slavery exists. Knowledge is a light that shines into dark places. Your carrying the knowledge in your head (and heart) matters, even if, right now, you cannot know exactly what it means or what to do with it. And in situations closer to home—in the continuing saga in New Orleans (post-Hurricane Katrina), for example, or in whatever event was described on page A-3 of your favorite paper—your being informed is crucially important indeed. Your fellow citizens are reading the papers, too; together, you are the Fourth Estate, the people, the court of last resort, and a power that can change the world. But don't take my word for it. Think it through for yourself.

    Finally, I encourage you to read one more story from The New York Times. It was written by Sharon LaFraniere and published on February 5, 2007, five months after the publication of the story, "Africa's World of Forced Labor, in a 6-Year-Old's Eyes." Here is an excerpt:

    Building a Memorial to a Lost Son, One Child at a Time[4]

    By SHARON LaFRANIERE, of The New York Times

    Published: February 5, 2007

    Seven years ago, Pam Cope owned a hair salon in Neosho, a tiny southwest Missouri town, and her husband, Randy, had just been appointed vice president of a company that ran a string of newspapers there and in neighboring states.

    Their lives revolved around their son's baseball games, their daughter's dance lessons and trips to places like Walt Disney World.

    ''My world was very small,'' Mrs. Cope said in a telephone interview in late January from Neosho, where she still lives. ''I was pretty shallow.''

    Few would say that today.

    Early last month, Mrs. Cope returned from Ghana, where she had financed the rescue of seven children who were working as indentured servants on fishing boats for as little as $20 a year. The youngest of them, Mark Kwadwo, 6, had labored in dire conditions under a brutal fisherman who beat him when he did not get up at midnight to bail out canoes.

    Working with a small Ghanaian charity, Mrs. Cope paid $3,600 to free the children and found them a new home in an orphanage near Accra, the capital. After years of privation, the children were dumbstruck by the plentiful breakfast served at the orphanage, caregivers there said.

    You should read the rest of the article. It will give you hope. It will give you steam for the term to come.


    1. Take the front page (print copy) of a national newspaper. Pretend you are a dictator who controls the press. What stories from the front page would you censor and why? Cut them out. Discuss what the citizens are left with for their news, and what the citizens have lost.
    2. Select a story from your local newspaper (print or digital edition). Make a list of people who you think will—or should—care about this story, and explain why they should.
    3. In your own words, explain how a free press protects a society's other freedoms.


    [2] Kovach, Bill and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), 22.

    [3] Kovach and Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, 23.


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