The readings this week begin with this:
“Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While the experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in dissent in Abrams v United States (1919)
Which reminds me of this Robert Frost quote: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.” That Frost qualifies his statement by using “almost anything” is prescient because there is a line, even when the First Amendment is involved; however, the nature of democracy is one of being able to speak one’s mind, to listen to what others have to say, and to come to some sort of agreement, if necessary around compromise. Losing one’s temper in the midst of this conversation is not necessarily evidence of passion: it may be evidence of something other altogether; and by that, I mean a sense of entitlement. Losing one’s temper, in addition, to being evidence of something other might also be an inability to see one’s position through someone else’s eyes. At the same time, losing one’s temper might also be an inability to see another person’s perspective, which is key to getting to a decision. Education, then, is the fulcrum on which enlightened conversation teeters. If this conversation is what the press is supposed to facilitate, then our education as informed citizens never stops; neither does the conversation.
Either way, I can see a connection between these two quotes and why is is important to educate the reader/citizen about the workings of the press. As the reader/citizen turns more and more to social media and the old gatekeeper model of the press falls by the wayside, the reader/citizen takes on more and more responsibility for what he or she reads. It might as well be a conscious effort. Journalists can play a role not only through providing more transparency about their sourcing and efforts to generate news, but they can offer forums, workshops and training to shed light on their work.
All that is fine and necessary. Unless the reader/citizen understands what is happening and how her or his role has shifted, there is little for journalists to do that will make much of a difference. That is why I love Kovach and Rosenstiel’s “A Citizen’s Bill Of Rights and Responsibilities” as found in their book The Elements of Journalism. Their principles of journalism provide a road map for the working journalist. Their citizen’s bill adds GPS to old road map for the reader/citizen. Both are imbued with principles and values. Both challenge their constituents to be better at what they do.
“…, the elements of journalism are a citizen’s bill of rights as much as they are a journalist’s bill of responsibilities,” the author’s write. “And with rights naturally come responsibilities for citizens as well–responsibilities that in the twenty-first century are growing along with the increased ability of the citizen to interact with the news.”
The Citizens’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities covers the following:
- On Truthfulness, whose first line reads, “We have the right to expect that the evidence of the integrity of the reporting to be explicit.” Balancing that right is the responsibility of citizens to “approach the news with an open mind and not just a desire that the news reinforce existing opinion.”
- On Loyalty to Citizens, which begins, “We should expect to see evidence that the material has been prepared for our use above all.” The section concludes, “We have every reason to expect that our news providers be as transparent in their operations as we expect them to demand other institutions of power to be.”
- On Independence, beginning, “We have a right to expect that commentators, columnists, and journalists of opinion present their material with supporting evidence that demonstrates they are viewing the subject to inspire open public debate, not to further the narrow interests of a faction or a move toward a predetermined outcome.”
- On Monitoring Power, beginning, “We have a right to expect that journalists monitor and hold to account the most important and difficult centers of power.”
- A Public Forum, beginning, “We should expect our news providers to create several channels through which we may interact with them.” At the same time, “citizens have an obligation to approach the news with open minds, willing to accept new facts and examine new points of view.” In addition, citizens have the responsibility to show up at public forums and “behave in a way that encourages respect and civility that make the ultimate goal of journalism–community–actual possible.”
- On Proportionality and Engagement, beginning, “We have a right to expect journalists to be aware of our basic dilemma as citizens: that we have a need for timely and deep knowledge of important issues and tends at a time when the proliferation of information and outlets has become increasingly unmanageable.” As citizens, we have the responsibility “not to narrow our focus.”
There is more, but this quick survey provides you with a general outline. Subsumed in this outline is that basic premise that education about the working of the press is a community effort: both journalists and reader/citizens have their roles to play. In the end, they need to educate each other in frank and open discourse, that at times can be trying, but always allows for more expression rather than less.