The year 2022 is not looking particularly promising for press freedom. In fact, the United States is one place where journalists could start seeing an increase in the types of threats that many of our colleagues in many illiberal societies already face.
If we don’t take corrective measures quickly to increase media literacy and slow the spread of disinformation, journalists working in the United States will become bigger targets for those who disagree with the information and perspectives we disseminate.
Last month, a judge in New York sentenced a man to three years in prison for threatening dozens of people, including journalists and members of Congress, for accurately reporting the results of the U.S. presidential election. The man, Robert Lemke, 36, sent text messages and voice mails, including pictures of the gravesite of CNN reporter Brian Stelter’s father and a message that described his mother’s house, implying Lemke was there.
Lemke believed the “big lie” and was prepared to threaten others for disagreeing with his demonstrably false views.
Traditionally journalists have wanted to stay away from the center of the stories they cover. Most of us would like nothing more than to do our jobs of chronicling and analyzing events with some measure of privacy. But that’s becoming impossible.
The pressure is on to make our work stand out, as success is increasingly linked to web traffic. And as journalists’ profile and perceived influence rise online, leaders with authoritarian mindsets, and their followers, see the reach and independence as a threat to their power.
Many journalists have endured years of online harassment and abuse in silence. The industry has become desensitized to these attacks, accepting them as an occupational hazard. We see the opportunity to inform a wide audience as a privilege that comes with responsibility — and you have to have thick skin, we tell ourselves.
The stakes, though, keep getting higher as our society becomes more polarized. Of course, this was most evident on Jan. 6, when Trump supporters attempted a coup at the U.S. Capitol.
The award honored their commitment to carrying out the job in a volatile and dangerous environment, and also acknowledged the tremendous personal risk they took. These journalists need recognition, but they also need care and support. We tend to forget that as an industry.
We don’t talk enough about the trauma many journalists endure — in large part because we are not supposed to know about it: Journalists never want to eclipse the subjects and broader themes at the heart of our stories.
As journalists covered the insurrection, documenting the most direct threat to our democracy since the Civil War, people hurled threats and insults in their direction. “Murder the media” was scratched into a door of the Capitol. Some in the mob chanted “CNN sucks” as they destroyed equipment owned by the Associated Press.
“I’ve covered conflict abroad and it wasn’t until reporting on social unrest throughout 2020 that I had to consistently go out with a military-grade gas mask, a bulletproof vest and eye protection,” Maranie Staab, an independent journalist who has been covering protest movements that erupted in different U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh, Portland and Syracuse, told me.
Staab says she witnessed “countless instances where the press was targeted, attacked and obstructed by law enforcement as well as groups on the far right and factions of the far left.”
Without proper accountability, we are bound to face more and better organized assaults on our democratic institutions. And that includes the free press.
I have written about the decline in press protections in Mexico, Iran and many other countries. The dehumanizing treatment of critical journalists by the nationalist Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has led to India becoming one of the deadliest places in the world to report. In 2021, four journalists were murdered and no one has been held accountable for those crimes.
We monitor press freedom to shine a light on those who want to obstruct the free flow of information in different societies. And that knowledge offers important tools for press freedom defenders across the world.
The United States, which prides itself of having a constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of the press, is seeing the tactics of dehumanization and intimidation long deployed by nondemocratic states.
Discrediting the press isn’t new, but this country is entering a new and darker chapter. President Donald Trump didn’t write it, but his brand of hateful showmanship was uniquely successful at fanning the fire. Putting it out will be difficult and, frankly, less “catchy” — headlines about disinformation and attacks on public figures don’t get a lot of sympathy, or clicks. But that’s precisely why it has to be a priority. Because if press freedom crumbles in the United States, if journalists feel threatened and vulnerable for speaking truth to power, then the outlook for democracy — here and abroad — will become bleaker than it already is.