EDITORIAL: Freedom worth fighting for

York Dispatch
James W. Foley in 2012 in Aleppo, Syria.
  • Not all journalists are created equal. The ratings-driven, echo-chamber media is not journalism.
  • Principled journalists work to preserve the First Amendment and ensure transparency.
  • They also often put themselves at risk to expose injustice.
  • If we don't support credible journalists, we could put at risk rights guaranteed by the founders.

As we put the Memorial Day holiday behind us, we would be wise to carry its meaning throughout the year. Those who fight for our democracy – and pay the ultimate price with their lives – should have our deepest and most sincere respect every day.

Among those freedoms that servicemen and servicewomen have sacrificed to protect and preserve are freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1791 as one of 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. It states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The Founding Fathers and constitutional rights are often at the heart of political debate. Amendments and the intentions of U.S. founders are often interpreted based on the perspective and political philosophy of the debater.

Outside the U.S., journalists who travel the globe to tell stories of human rights abuses are increasingly at risk. According to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Islamic militant groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaeda were responsible for killing 28 journalists worldwide last year — 40 percent of the total killed in relation to their work. Nine of those killings took place in France, which was second only to Syria as the most dangerous country for the press in 2015.”

Yet for many journalists — American journalists included — their governments and employers are not able or, in some cases, perhaps, willing to keep them safe or successfully negotiate a safe return. Among those was James Foley, the American journalist beheaded by the Islamic State — ISIL — after being kidnapped for the second time covering the Syrian civil war.

While the FBI continued to tell his parents, John and Diane, that they had the situation under control, Foley’s parents were not confident, and it turned out they were correct in their apprehension.

Journalists are not as valued by government and the public as they once were. In an age of distrust of “media,” there is a lack of concern for those journalists who remain true to the values of objectivity and who have a strong desire to hold those in power accountable.

This may be due to an increasing distrust of and sometimes outright contempt for journalists that seems to come from all corners: business, government and the public.

As community journalists, we agree that echo-chamber media — politically partisan cable news, radio and print — and media as entertainment (newsertainment) brand of consumer news can be worthy of criticism regarding its lack of objectivity and a ratings-above journalism approach.

But as community journalists, we believe that there are many more journalists whose names you don’t know — be they traveling to terrorist strongholds or trying to get access to local government public records — who put the tenets of the First Amendment above everything else.

Just ask any local journalists what they drive and you’ll see the extent to which they are cashing in on their career.

They don’t do it for the money. They don’t do it for public accolades.

They do it to speak truth to power but also to effect change that will benefit everyone, not just a select few who hold the power.

There was a time when covering wars in far-off lands or covering local government was respected and supported. Young people aspired to journalism. For some, it’s still a calling.

But the unscrupulous nature of the minority in the profit-driven “media” business that promote the echo chamber and put ratings above journalism seems to have sullied many on all journalists, the majority of whom take freedom of the press and freedom of speech to heart.

Many reporters like James Foley are freelance journalists. They aren’t getting rich or making friends by exposing human rights abuses.

It's often convenient to blame the media, but if we aren’t informed about and protective of those principled  journalists who are watchdogs for our rights, we may put those basic rights, guaranteed by the founders, at risk.