For journalists: A more dangerous world

Photo: UNESCO

Photo: UNESCO

Kill the messenger

It’s the figurative “Kill the messenger” tactic- Try to discredit journalists because the truths they report expose deceit, fraud, illegal or immoral activity by those who are doing the condemning. “Killing the messenger” should not be confused with “the big lie” which is a gross distortion or misrepresentation of the facts often used as a propaganda device by a politician or official body. The two are often employed together in practice.

Take these recent examples- Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s attack on the news media as chronicled by New York Times Opinion Columnist  Charles M. Blow or shots at the news media over its reporting by defenders of Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Defining journalists?

My point it this: Most journalists are diligent and credible. They care about what they report and why they report it. They seek truth and balance. They attribute their sources, and report what they find. Journalists separate fact from fiction in the communities they serve. They are willing to hold the accountable,,,accountable,even if it means putting their own reputations and lives on the line. Did I add that most journalists earn low salaries and most aren’t in the profession to get rich? 

Palestinian journalists help their injure colleague get to safety after being attacked by Israeli soldiers near the Erez Crossing on October 13th 2015 Photo:Middle East Monitor

Palestinian journalists help their injure colleague get to safety after being attacked by Israeli soldiers near the Erez Crossing on October 13th 2015 Photo:Middle East Monitor

Conditions for the news media are getting worse

In the United States, we are blessed by free press principles. They are an underlying part of our U.S. Constitution but ranked 49th globally for free press principles according to Reporters Without Borders. The group’s Press Freedom Index ranks the performance of 180 countries with criteria that include media pluralism, independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, as well as the legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which the media operate.

The U.S. free press principles should be better, but they’re relatively good. It’s not that way in many other countries where the “Kill the messenger” syndrome is often literal in meaning and being a journalist can make you or your family a marked man, woman or child.

The facts

Over the past ten years, over 700 journalists have been killed on the job while countless others have been kidnapped or imprisoned. Last week marked the first annual International Day To End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists and UNESCO released some interesting figures highlighting the dangers faced by reporters.

According to UNESCO, one journalist dies every week on average with 9 out of 10 cases remaining unresolved. Even though the deaths of foreign journalists attract considerable attention, locals are usually in the most danger. Ninety-four percent of those killed tend to be local media workers.
Infographic: Global Crimes Against Journalists Visualised | Statista

Freedom of the Press 2015, the latest edition of an annual report published by Freedom House since 1980, found that global press freedom declined in 2014 to its lowest point in more than 10 years. The rate of decline also accelerated drastically, with the global average score suffering its largest one-year drop in a decade. Freedom House noted:

The share of the world’s population that enjoys a Free press stood at 14 percent, meaning only one in seven people live in countries where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.

Journalists with tape over their mouths gather on World Press Freedom Day in Bujumbura, Burundi last May. They denounced attacks on and threats to journalists, media workers and human rights defenders in Burundi. PHOTO: AP/Jerome Delay

Journalists with tape over their mouths gather on World Press Freedom Day in Bujumbura, Burundi last May. They denounced attacks on and threats to journalists, media workers and human rights defenders in Burundi. PHOTO: AP/Jerome Delay

So, consider the role of a free press, warts and all, in any real democracy. Ask yourself if you think our society would be better, safer, as informed, or as independent, without one.

Ask if you’d be willing to trade places with the journalists who have been killed, jailed, tortured, threatened or fired for doing their jobs. When I ask students this question many, sometimes most of them, say “No.”  Then they say they’re glad to have journalists among us who are willing to make those sacrifices every day. They do it so the rest of us can stay informed. They do it so we can decide for ourselves what constitutes the truth.

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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