The freedoms and responsibilities of all public writers – Poynter – Poynter
If I were asked to coach every public writer in America, I would begin with a discussion of the Bill of Rights. I would give special attention to the five freedoms described in the First Amendment.
If that choice seems obvious, my next one will seem obscure. I would purchase for every student a small volume published in 1947 by the University of Chicago Press. Its title is “A Free and Responsible Press.” Its 132 pages constitute the formal “Report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press.”
That commission was convened in 1942, in the midst of World War II, under the direction of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago and one of America’s leading intellectuals. The commission worked for five years with money granted by Henry Luce of Time Inc. The grant of $200,000 in 1942 would be valued at about $3.5 million in 2021.
The commission was convened at a moment in American history when much public writing was influenced, directed, controlled and at times censored by the government. An editor of Life magazine during the war years once told me that his photographers, writers and designers were willing propagandists for the American war effort against the Nazis. And why not?
Such collaboration would seem counterproductive by the time war correspondents were covering the conflict in Vietnam.
The commission comprised about 20 public intellectuals, scholars in history, anthropology, religion and ethics, political science, philosophy, and law. There were no working journalists on board, which gave groups such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors an easy reason to dismiss the findings of the commission when they were published in 1947. All of this talk about “social responsibility” and ideas about “self-regulation” felt like an impingement on press freedom — and maybe the bottom line.
Every time I read this report, it feels ahead of its time. It feels that way again as I read it in 2021, almost 80 years after it was first imagined.
The year 1947 is significant in the history of mass media, not just because of this document. That was the first year that television sets became commercially available. The likes of Edward R. Murrow would soon make their way from radio news to television news. Mass media would never be the same again.
The subtitle of the report is significant: “A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspaper, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines, and Books.”
I find it refreshing to consider that the scholars of 1942 thought it necessary not to limit the word “press” to what we might consider printed expressions of journalism or nonfiction. American opinion about the war and other issues would be shaped by all forms of public expression — even novels, even movies, even cartoons, even popular poetry, even magazine advertising.
Mass media have fragmented in the digital age, and we continue to wonder what is good and what is bad about that. But a key thing we can take from the Hutchins Commission: The standards and values expressed within that report can now cover more forms of expression, not fewer.
Now, in addition to newspapers, radio, motion pictures, magazines and books, we get to add network television, cable, websites, podcasts, streaming music and videos, multimedia, virtual reality, mapping technology, data visualization and all other forms of expression designed for public consumption, and, at their best, for the public good.
It is no exaggeration to argue that journalism in our time faces two existential threats: the loss of its business model; and a widespread political effort to decertify it. Surveys indicate that the credibility of journalists — and many other public communicators — is sliding lower and lower, and that trust in almost all democratic institutions is in decline.
But consider this footnote from page 27 of the report. Remember this comes from 1947:
A striking indication of the continuous need to renew the basic values of our society is given in the recent poll of public opinions by the national Opinion Research Center at Denver, in which one out of every three persons polled did not think the newspaper should be allowed to criticize the American form of government, even in peacetime. Only 57 per cent thought that the Socialist party should be allowed, in peacetime, to publish newspapers in the United States. Another poll revealed that less than a fourth of those questioned had a “reasonably accurate idea” of what the Bill of Rights is. Here is widespread ignorance with regard to the value most cherished by the press — its own freedom — which seems only dimly understood by many of its consumers.
It’s one thing for tyrants and autocrats to strip away the powers of the press, even to the point of jailing or murdering those who stand up against them. It’s quite another to have large portions of a citizenry ignorant of the role of a free press, apathetic to its work, and hostile to any message which rubs against a personal bias. How to create a renaissance of public writing, in the public interest, with the public interested in and supportive of its aims, has been a recent focus of my work.
Chapter 2 of the Hutchins Report enumerates “The Requirements” of a free and responsible press: “If the freedom of the press is freighted with the responsibility of providing the current intelligence needed by a free society, we have to discover what a free society requires.”
Those requirements are summarized in this single paragraph:
Today (1947) our society needs, first, a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning; second, a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism; third, a means of projecting the opinions and attitudes of the groups in the society to one another; fourth, a method of presenting and clarifying the goals and values of the society; and, fifth, a way of reaching every member of the society by the currents of information, thought, and feeling which the press supplies.
Let’s consider each one of these five with greater elaboration from the original authors. The question for us is whether each requirement is still relevant, and, if so, how it might be realized in an era of pandemic, climate catastrophes, social unrest, misinformation and insurrection.
“The first requirement is that the media should be accurate. They should not lie. … It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”
“Identification of source is necessary to a free society. Democracy, in time of peace, at least, has a justifiable confidence that full and free discussion will strengthen rather than weaken it. But if the discussion is to have the effect for which democracy hopes, if it is to be really full and free, the names and the characters of the participants must not be hidden from view.”
“Responsible performance here simply means that the images repeated and emphasized be such as are in total representative of the social group as it is. The truth about any social group, though it should not exclude its weaknesses and vices, includes also recognition of its values, its aspirations, and its common humanity.”
This remains an early declaration for the importance of diversity in news coverage, one reinforced by the Kerner Commission Report of 1968, and more relevant now than ever.
“We must recognize … that the agencies of mass communication are an educational instrument, perhaps the most powerful there is; and they must assume a responsibility like that of educators in stating and clarifying the ideals toward which the community should strive.”
“We can inform (the leaders in the society) only by making information available to everybody.”
Do we need in our own time a commission on the freedoms and responsibilities of what we once called the “press”? If I were the Henry Luce of this day, I would give $3.5 million to the effort. Since I can only afford about $350, I will declare myself a commission of one.
To bring the report up to date, I would add five new requirements for a free and responsible press.
In the middle of the 20th century, the word “propaganda” went from being a neutral term, something equivalent to “advocacy,” to something much darker. The Nazis poisoned the word so that it is now used almost always pejoratively. Add to that word other terms such as disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories, and you form a distorted constellation of the digital age.
When once it felt like it was enough for public writers to tell us what is true, now they must also help us understand what is not true.
A strategic shift in political journalism occurred with the creation of PolitiFact, a Pulitzer-Prize winning fact-checking team created by the Tampa Bay Times. With the Poynter Institute as its new home, the influence of PolitiFact has grown globally, forming a network of journalists and other public writers working in support of truth-telling in the public interest.
For an enterprise so devoted to making things public, journalists of the 20th century could be unreasonably secretive about their working methods. The evolution from opaqueness to transparency has been a slow, but important process.
While sources need to be nurtured and protected, credibility is gained when people go on the record, when they include more background information on how knowledge is gained, when they reveal their biases and potential conflicts.
The most vicious trolls of the internet are shielded by anonymity.
One of the most impressive investigative projects in the history of the Tampa Bay Times was called “Failure Factories,” a close look at the terrible problems — educational and social — coming out of re-segregated public schools. The truths revealed were devastating, and they did over time result in some reforms.
My critique of the series, created by journalists I much admire, was this: “Now that you have spent a year revealing these problems, why not spend another year searching for solutions. Can’t you find other school districts that experienced similar problems and worked their way from despair to hope?”
The call for solutions-based research and reports arrives and makes noise like the cicada — every 17 years or so. It may be the case that public writers outside of news organizations can help a community search for solutions.
News organizations were once the most competitive institutions in America. When competitive juices began to flow — between news services, or national news organizations, or local broadcast stations — it could lead to many a scoop. The race was often to publish first and to gain exclusive access to sources. But being first did not always translate to getting it right.
Now with the loss of news resources, it is more common — and helpful — for some news organizations to pool resources, or even to point readers and viewers to the work of a competitor.
And while a degree of independence remains a virtue, it should not eclipse those moments of interdependence, when public writers work to disclose and express the interests of other key institutions in the community. Such institutions share an interest in education, health care, criminal justice, entertainment and the arts. Public writers create work that serves as a guidebook toward full participation in a community, from the voting booth to the coffee bar.
Thomas Jefferson said something important about the nature of the press in a democratic society that I choose to paraphrase here: that he would rather have a press without a government than a government without a press. He added that what he most wanted was a citizenry that was literate enough to engage with the work of the press, to understand the information delivered by it, and to act accordingly in the public interest.
The need for media literacy, or news literacy, or civic literacy has created a productive stream of critical literacy programs from the student level to senior citizens. The internet and social media have made this effort more critical. What am I looking at? Where is this information coming from? How do I know if that photo or video is authentic, or enhanced? Institutions that support journalism and all forms of public communication should get behind such programs.
Having leaned so heavily upon the values expressed in the Hutchins Commission Report, it seems only fair to give those bright lights of the late 1940s the final word, a paragraph that comes near the end of the report:
A free press is not a passing goal of human society; it is a necessary goal. For the press, taken in sum, is the swift self-expression of the experience of each moment of history; and this expression ought to be true. Much of the content of the press is intended solely for its own day; and the journalist sometimes reflects that his art is one of improvisation, and that the products, being destined to pass with the interest of the moment, require no great care in their workmanship. Yet, just because it is the day’s report of itself, it is the permanent word of that day to all other days. The press must be free because its freedom is a condition of its veracity, and its veracity is its good faith with the total record of the human spirit.
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