“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

  •  Isaac Asimov, Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)

The health of our democracy depends upon the oversight and reporting of journalists. As the “fourth estate,” Journalists represent the people and perform this oversight. Journalism, under persistent attack with unfounded claims of “fake news” from those threatened by journalists, struggles with viability and credibility. Media outlets do not abide by ethical journalistic practices, degrading public trust in journalism. Journalism has been fractured by technological change, undermined by de-regulation, and attacked by organizations and individuals seeking to increase their profit and power. Those motives alone undermine the idea of an independent news media and make it difficult for honest journalists to succeed.

Maria Ressa: How Social Media Uses Free Speech To Stifle Free Speech https://youtu.be/xpWevZ5yQz8

Foundations, principles, and values

Journalists are our eyes, ears, and watchdogs to hold government, businesses, institutions, and influential individuals accountable. Our principled journalists provide the generally accepted (although not always perfect) evidence upon which civic dialogue depends. Without trust in journalists and journalism, democracy will die.

Local journalism is collapsing. School boards, city councils, county supervisor meetings, and other local oversight agencies go uncovered and underreported by the local press. A 2019 report from PEN America notes, “A vibrant, responsive democracy requires enlightened citizens, and without forceful local reporting, they are kept in the dark. “At a time when political polarization is increasing, and fraudulent news is spreading, a shared fact-based discourse on the issues that most directly affect us is more essential and elusive than ever.”

Status: Issues & Challenges

Before 1987, media outlets were required to report the news in a “fairly and balanced” manner. Americans had differences, of course, but we also had a commonly accepted “best obtainable version of the truth.” But, in 1987, the FCC eliminated this fairness doctrine. The elimination of this social pact disrupted ethical journalism, opening the door to entertainment news (or “e-news” in journalism jargon), often promoting the business interests of the media outlets and their associated political factions. News as entertainment opened the door to slanted reporting, sensationalism, “alternative facts,” and outrageous conspiracy theories. Other major contributing factors are the consolidation of news sources into a handful of conglomerates, the contraction of local news and local investigations, the growth of the internet, and the proliferation of online citizen journalism mixing with malicious algorithms on social media.

In recent years, some organizations and individuals have sought to discredit “mainstream media” without merit or evidence. These continuous attacks have created a distrust of media, marginalized consumers of news, and sidelined a substantial portion of the populace from constructive participation in world affairs.

In the years ahead, as digital technologies continue to revolutionize, we are likely to see malicious actors design newer and even more powerful ways to weaponize information. And yet those same next-gen technologies can also defend against propaganda and lies—if only citizens and news consumers have the skills and education to use them properly.

Consider the motivations of those who seek to undermine journalism: Are they acting for the Common Good or their own self-interest?

Program Opportunities

The PSA community will educate, empower, and engage members and the public in ethical practices in journalism and the media, media literacy, fact-checking, self-awareness, fallacies identification, and programs to develop critical thinking skills.

Suggestions for action:

Take the Media Meal Planning workshop.

Develop courses and workshops to help members build better crap detectors.

Teach fact-checking.

Develop a local group to improve local reporting.

Michael Freedman

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