A free press: The allies of the people

On August 16th, hundreds of newspapers across America – liberal and conservative, large and small – published their own unique editorials on the value of a free press.

The synchronized timing, inspired by a call from the Boston Globe, was unprecedented – a response to the equally unprecedented labelling of journalists as “the enemies of the people” by the president of the United States, who regularly attacks critical but factual coverage of his statements and activities as “fake news.”

It’s tempting to shrug one’s shoulders and to write this off as an American-only story, or a short-term clash of wills between a beleaguered, pugnacious president and a critical press, of the sort we’ve seen many times throughout history.

Today, however, the protection and advancement of professional journalism is an urgent task for every healthy society. And those who practise professional communications must be at the forefront of this cause. Here’s why.

1. When the truth is hard to find, journalists are our best bets to find it.

When politicians attack the media, some people agree. They point to journalists being sloppy, sensational, or both — particularly in this era where the competition for audiences means being bold and being fast. These concerns are sometimes fair, as journalists and media outlets have different levels of quality and professionalism.

When the truth is elusive, however, ask yourself whether we are more likely to find it if we rely on journalists or on those in positions of political or economic power. In evaluating a product, a policy or an investment, the claims of both its proponents and competitors must be tested – independently.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”Thomas Jefferson

2. Democracy demands a respectful but adversarial relationship between the press and power.

The media are frequently accused of bias, largely because many journalists are adversarial. While of course media outlets and individual reporters have their biases, I have a long perspective because Argyle has worked with governments and political leaders of every stripe. Governing parties have one thing in common: they believe the media are biased against them. I’ve heard Canada’s Globe and Mail labelled as part of the ‘liberal media’ by Conservatives, and part of the ‘right-wing media’ by New Democrats. I’ve heard two prime ministers – one Liberal, one Conservative – rail about the CBC’s alleged bias against them.

This is as it should be. We are used to adversarial processes in a democracy: consider a parliament or a court of law, where claims are tested, often aggressively, through hard questions. The same is true of the relationship between politicians and journalists. We must demand that our political leaders respect the media, who are essential to testing a government’s ideas and holding it accountable. While belittling journalists and limiting their access to decision-makers may be popular with partisans, such actions are undemocratic and unprofessional.

“The press was to serve the governed, not the governors,” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, 1971

3. Without a free press to test it, communication lacks credibility.

In a recent survey of senior U.S. and international public relations professionals, 64 per cent agreed that in five years the average person will not be able to make a distinction between paid, earned, shared and owned media. The more alarming finding was that 59 per cent believed the average person will not care.

But care we must. Otherwise, we enter a world in which exaggeration and falsehood are indistinguishable from fact, where no one knows what – or whom – to believe. That would continue to erode trust in both business and government, with negative implications for compliance with laws, investments in capital markets, participation in elections, and everyday buying decisions.

In short, a free press is essential to the practice of public relations, the discipline designed to achieve mutual understanding between organizations and their publics. That is why leading U.S. public relations associations, such as the Arthur Page Society and the Public Relations Society of America, released a statement in support of a free press, with support from the Canadian Public Relations Society.

At Argyle, our team recently considered our purpose – the reason we exist – and we landed on a simple phrase: we fight for truth and trust through public relationships. At a time when truth is elusive, and relationships with the public require trust, a free press is the ally of the ethical politician, business and communicator. The media are the enemy only of those who would deceive and divide us.

“Our tradition of a free press as a vital part of our democracy is as important as ever.”Ronald Reagan

No matter one’s politics, professional journalism must be respected as a vital element of democracy. No matter who is in office, the media should be curious, critical, fearless and free.

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