Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a CNN Opinion series on the challenges facing the media, under attack from critics, governments and changing technology. Brian Stelter is CNN’s senior media correspondent and the host of “Reliable Sources.”
Programming note: Watch CNN Special Report “Battle in the Briefing Room: The President vs. the Press” Thursday at 9 p.m. ET.
Press freedom is YOUR freedom. That’s the way I recommend thinking about “freedom of the press.”
I can see why this topic might seem conceptual or vague to the average reader. Journalists have an obvious interest in preserving and expanding press freedom. The writers for this website benefit from the fact that press freedom in the United States is constitutionally protected and buttressed by cultural norms.
But it’s about MORE than just journalists. Turn it around. Recognize how protections for the press benefit each and every one of us, whether we’re reporting the news or reading about it.
Press freedom protects and ensures your freedom.
The First Amendment, of course, “applies only to the government,” as the famed media lawyer Floyd Abrams said in his most recent book about the subject.
He titled his book “The Soul of the First Amendment” – to explore the spirit of the text that protects freedom of speech, what he called “its anticensorial soul.”
The values enshrined in the First Amendment protect members of the media from government interference, yes, but it protects all of us.
You’re in the media
Press freedom means you have the information you need to make up your own mind. And you have the ability to speak out. Nowadays, if you share links on Facebook or tweet on Twitter or chat on Snapchat, you’re a part of the media and you benefit from the constitutional protection of the free press.
Now, those social media sites and apps are owned by private companies, with their own rules that sometimes restrict free expression. This is an issue that we’re going to be grappling with for years to come.
But those sites enable hundreds of millions of people to participate in the news process – providing eyewitness information and new perspectives. The web has enabled countless people, myself included, to become bloggers and reporters and commentators.
Think about it this way: If your view of President Trump has soured or improved over the past year, you have benefited from constant press access and scrutiny of the White House. You have benefited from a vigorous free press.
When journalists uncover corporate wrongdoing and expose political cover-ups, we all benefit. When lawyers at a newspaper or a TV network gain access to government documents through the Freedom of Information Act, we all benefit.
Of course, our cherished First Amendment protections also enable falsehoods, hoaxes and other forms of misinformation to spread across the country and all around the world.
With our rights to free expression come responsibilities. Since press freedom applies to all of us – since we’re essentially all members of the media nowadays – we all have a responsibility to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
How so? By triple-checking before sharing sensational stories on social media. Is the source recognizable? Reliable? Are the facts verifiable?
Think of the classic example from the 2016 campaign – the one that claimed that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump for President. That never happened.
A more recent example is a real picture from the Seattle Seahawks locker room that was photoshopped to show a flag being burned. You might say, “Hey, c’mon, that’s obviously fake,” but some people shared it, wanting to believe it, and that spread a falsehood to others.
How can you be a part of the solution? By triple checking before sharing sensational stories on social media. Is the source recognizable? Reliable? Are the facts verifiable?
Newsrooms and media companies have responsibilities, too – to seek out what Carl Bernstein likes to call the best obtainable version of the truth. To be forthright about mistakes and missteps. To practice and promote media literacy.
Part of media literacy, I think, means recognizing our roles as both consumers and creators of media. It means recognizing that press freedom doesn’t just insulate the journalists who are attacked and demeaned by the Trump administration or local lawmakers.
It means resisting government attempts to devalue and delegitimize journalism. Why? Because, simply put, press freedom is your freedom.