This week, for one of my graduate journalism courses, I took a jaunt back in time to look at the media of mass communications as it was in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1947, the Commission on Freedom of the Press synthesized a report on the state and future prospects of the freedom of the press, a press that functioned according to Libertarian theory at the time. The Commission’s report, titled “A Free and Responsible Press”, provided solutions to what the Commission saw as an endangered freedom of the press. In the spirit of liberalism and minimal governmental regulation of the press, the Commission looked “principally to the press and the people” (p. 3) to provide solutions.
The Commission formed its report based on testimony from 58 men and women connected with the press and interviews with more than 225 members of industries, government and private agencies concerned with the press. The Commission sought an answer the question: “Is the freedom of the press in danger?” It concluded that the answer to this question was “yes” based upon a media industry that was growing in the vein of “Big Business” and selling content of a rather under-representative and over-entertaining nature.
In the words of the Commission as published in 1947, “the all-to-frequent distortions and suppression of news by large newspapers and press associations have made them less the aids to a truly free market in ideas than they ought to be in a democratic society” (p. 75).
According to the Commission, economic forces and a lack of institutionalized standards contributed to poor performance of the press as carrier of accurate, objective and significant news, instrument of public expression and discussion, and unbiased source of important information. The media publisher of the day, Virginius Dabney said, looked “upon the paper primarily as a ‘property’ rather than as an instrument for public service.” Such an irresponsible press, the Commission argued, was one endangered, on the brink of losing its freedom to governmental regulation.
The Commission regarded freedom of expression as a moral right, one with an aspect of duty about it, “which the state must not infringe” (p. 9). But a press operated by business-minded publishers who behaved “as though their position conferred on them the privilege of being deaf to ideas which the processes of free speech have brought to public attention” (p. 9) could not be a free press. What’s more, such a press was not serving each man’s duty to his conscience and to society to express his ideas, and was thus failing society at large.
Thus the Social Responsibility model of press structure and function was born. A free press was inherently a responsible press, the Commission posited.
It its report, the Commission went on to state the following requirements of a free press: that the press deliver truthful and context-rich news of the day, separate fact from opinion, explore the truth behind facts, clearly separate news content from advertisements, provide for public comment and criticism, hold up societal values and fairly represent public issues. If it failed in these tasks, self-regulation and self-criticism, public pressure, and even governmental regulation were recommended.
“To protect the press is no longer automatically to protect the citizen or the community. The freedom of the press can remain a right of those who publish only if it incorporates into itself the right of the citizen and the public interest.” (A Free and Responsible Press, p. 18).
I find myself wondering about the performance of the press today, in our modern era of internet and social media galore. In an age when almost every man and women, at least in developed nations such as our own, can express his or her ideas over blogs, tweets, and Facebook pages, has the nature of "responsibility of the press" changed? Undoubtedly, the millions who exert their freedom of expression over social media are not typically trained in the professional standards of journalism that the Commission so emphatically recommended. Has the accountability and responsibility of reporting been conferred to the individual tweeter? Or rather should the responsibility function of the traditional press change to reflect this new abundance of self-expression?
I think about science coverage in the news, and how many science communicators condemn the “balance” practiced by traditional journalists as bias against scientific consensus and the process of scientific discovery. How is the press being “responsible” by pitting the ten authors of a scientific publication on an aspect of global climate change against the single climate change denier? How is fair representation built into digital communications and safeguarded against the “digital divide”?
We can hardly object to a theory of the press that upholds responsibility to both individual rights and the needs of society. But how does that responsibility play out in a communications landscape populated by citizen journalists, amateur YouTube movie-makers, bloggers and “professional tweeters”?
I wonder what the Commission would have had to say on the state of the press as it is today. No doubt we have beautifully fixed many of the problems set forth in “A Free and Responsible Press”, but also without doubt many more new problems have cropped up. Search engines without codes of ethics that gather our news for us according to our previous online habits and preferences. Newspaper journalists who without a qualm retweet unconfirmed headlines, reproduce press releases (Financial conflicts of interest?!), and get their story ideas from blogs.
But every man (and women) has a duty to express his or her thoughts. So what do you think?