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World Press Freedom Day shows perils of journalism

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George Washington University

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World Press Freedom Day shows perils of journalism

What does freedom of the press mean today?

Carmen Collins

5.8.17

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) hosted a conversation with GWU's School of Media and Public Affairs on the importance of the freedom of the press and the role of international journalists on May 1.

Journalists from all over the world came to the event to speak about the dangers that they face on reporting issues such as Boko Haram, ISIS, and the civil war in Syria.

Director and CEO of BBG Jeffry Lansing, along with host Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media Public Affairs held a Q & A about how just starting international journalists should take care of themselves in dangerous situations as well as the new reality of being a journalist during the Trump Administration.

Panelists included Elise Labott, Global Affairs Correspondent of CNN, Michael Oreskes, Senior VP of News and Editorial Director of NPR, and David Smith, Washington Correspondent for The Guardian.

Discussing what Sesno dubbed as "an alternate, new reality" in the news landscape, the panelists reached a consensus that the modern media and its role in democracy is more important now than ever before.

"I think it's the most difficult time to be a journalist, probably since World War II. It's clear that many governments...some that we view as democracies where controlling the flow of information has become a tool for their government. They have made it extremely difficult, and in some cases, extremely dangerous to gather news," Michael Oreskes said.

"I think it's the most difficult time to be a journalist since World War II."

Labott reiterated this point and discussed how she and the rest of the CNN team are much more careful on how they report. Before the rise of social media and the accusations of false news, all she had to do was to fact-check and have credible sources. "It used to be that if we had the sources and checked our facts very carefully, that would be enough because the law was always on our side. It's not always on our side anymore," said Labott.

"It used to be that if we had the sources and checked our facts very carefully, that would be enough because the law was always on our side. It's not always on our side anymore."

Lansing coined the term "weaponization of information" and how not just the Trump Administration, but the Kremlin questions what a fact really is. With the rise of social media, he said that thousands of internet trolls create "false narratives" that makes it difficult to give an audience the facts.

"It makes it all the more challenging for Voice of America, CNN, or NPR to really stand-up to a storm of disinformation and try to establish a set of clear facts," he said.

News organizations are fighting internet trolls at the local level too. Big news organization like NPR must also do this even where news gathering and reporting is seen. Oreskes said that local journalists get the people in their community to listen and pay attention to the news being published.

Nowadays, many news editors and journalists are wary of intimidation that comes from social media and from opposition forces that don't want stories to be published that could reveal corruption, murder, rape, and more. Journalists abroad and at the local level, face death, jail and violation of human rights for attempting to a publish a story that would reveal the truth.

This isn't happening just in Ukraine or Angola, but in the United States of America, where the leader of the free world, the president, endangers one of the most important institutions that allows for democracy to flourish.

As Sesno said, "When the president of the United States refers to journalists as 'enemies of the people' that is a very concerning thing that enables others to not only say it, but to act on it."

"When the president of the United States refers to journalists as "enemies of the people" that is a very concerning thing that enables others to not only say it, but to act on it," Sesno said.

What does this say about the future journalism? It is a dangerous field, but in order to preserve democracy and basic human rights, a robust free press is needed.

After hearing the panelists speak, it became clear that as a budding journalist, it's going to be hard for me to cover stories without some kind of opposition from any type of government, even the United States.

Listening in on the panelists, I realized that even though there are many obstacles that journalists face, we need many young, brave journalists to hold institutions and powerful people accountable. This is especially relevant when President Trump views the media as the enemy, not as an institution for democracy.


Video from the Broadcasting Board of Governors