Whatever you think about the wave of protests in the United States right now, there is a reason the CNN sign in Atlanta was defaced. The average American doesn’t feel represented by the news media. It’s time journalists acknowledge what we’ve been doing wrong. The wave of protests in the United States and the government’s response is a perfect learning opportunity.
I graduated from college in May with a BA in journalism. The most important thing I learned from studying journalism is how cowardly the press in the United States is. My school constantly emphasized outdated forms of media such as cable news. They taught story marketing and how to edit over more important practices like writing or ethics, and pushed the mindset that people in communications should prioritize their careers over the power their platform could have. On World Press Freedom Day, I was the only person from the communications school that I saw voicing support for Julian Assange, despite the death blow to free press that would come from Assange being imprisoned. About a year into studying journalism, I lost track of how often my classmates would quietly voice an issue they had with the school, just to follow it up with “but I don’t wanna say anything because I need an internship.” I believe my college experience served as the perfect introduction to everything wrong with America’s journalism industry.
I spent years practically begging anyone at my school to help me address the issues caused by privatization and monopolization of news outlets in America. I wanted people going into the media to have conversations about the dangers of valuing ad sales over impact. I thought people should be scared of just five companies owning TV news distribution, or legacy newspapers requiring paywalls. I rarely received support. Most of my classmates were silent for the sake of their careers. I eventually stopped, but now, as I watch everything going on in America, and how poorly major news outlets are using their platforms, I felt the need to raise my voice once more. I ask every journalist in America to take a step back, look at what’s happening, and ask ourselves if we’re doing our jobs correctly.
Journalists are being arrested live on air and being permanently blinded by police with rubber bullets. Though, this suppression of the free press in America is not new. Independent journalists already knew the dangers of covering a protest in a country that hands excess DoD supplies to police, and now the journalists who have the backing of big name outlets and all the ad money that comes with them are facing the same suppression. Still, a lot of them are doing everything they can to make the rioters seem like the biggest threat, instead of a militarized police force that’s attacking civilians across the country without repercussions. I cannot emphasize enough how dangerous it is for any journalist right now to use their platforms to negatively depict rioters while a powerful government is attacking its civilians. In journalism, we’re encouraged to be objective and give all sides of a story equal weight. But the truth is most stories don’t have equal weight. If a scale has two pounds on one platform, and three pounds on the other, and someone places one pound on each side, the scales don’t even out. Journalists treating all sides equally, and especially journalists treating the government’s violence as less dangerous, are helping to create a subjective narrative of these events that will have devastating long term implications.
The police have the president and both major political parties backing them. They have a court system that constantly excuses them of murder. They have combat gear at their disposal. They don’t need cable news and legacy newspapers on their side as well. The Americans all over the country, screaming in desperation for their constitutional rights to be acknowledged, need our platforms. And the truth is, we need these protests. Because if protesters, peaceful or violent, lose their first amendment rights, journalists will too.
It is essential that, as narratives are being shaped in real time, journalists use their resources to even out the narrative, and the only way for us to do that is to provide as much weight as we can to the side that has practically none.