Five recommendations on World Press Freedom Day

Essay By
Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

On this World Press Freedom Day, let us celebrate how a free press can produce a vibrant source of information about our communities and world.

The procedures that guide independent journalism involve a commitment to checking facts, verifying sources, hearing multiple sides of a story, giving citizens a forum to present their views, asking decision-makers the hard questions, holding elected leaders responsible, running corrections when journalists make mistakes, questioning one’s own preconceptions, and, ultimately, being held accountable by readers, viewers, and listeners. 

When they work properly, these protocols give citizens information to address the problems that may exist in their towns or nations. Consider how the recent reporting of a small local newspaper held officials in an Oklahoma community accountable for their racist remarks and threats to journalists.  

As we mark this day, though, challenges to vibrant media exist both globally and domestically. 

A perilous trend is limiting press freedoms globally. Freedom House’s 2023 Freedom in the World report states that, “Of all the indicators tracked by Freedom in the World, media freedom and freedom of personal expression have declined the most precipitously over the past 17 years.”  

The attack on a free press is especially evident in Russia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, where independent journalists have been arrested, harassed, and driven out of business. The most glaring recent example is Russia’s arrest of and charges against Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

This reality is why democratic leaders need to consistently speak out against abuses of a free press. Many leaders do that today, and their voices should hearten us. But their support for a free press is needed regularly in presidential meetings, diplomatic forums, and even among private sector exchanges.  

A different set of problems exist in the United States, largely due to the rapid loss of newspapers. More than 25% of U.S. newspapers have closed since 2005. Over the same period, about 60% of newsroom employees have lost their jobs. The closures have created a particular crisis in rural communities 

The digital revolution and the upending of the advertising-driven business model have sparked the decline. The internet and social media platforms have become the place for advertisers alerting consumers to their products. The disruption of the news model has produced “news deserts” and “ghost papers” that have left some Americans with no local newspaper or a shell of one.  

At the same time, trust in the media remains a problem. A recent AP/NORC poll shows that 45% of the country has no to little faith in journalists’ ability to report accurately and fairly. Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans express very different levels of trust in the national news they receive. And Pew Research Center reported last October that: “Local news outlets are the most trusted among all age groups, but trust in these outlets among Americans overall is at its lowest point in recent years.” 

These domestic challenges do have solutions. Here are five to consider on World Press Freedom Day:

1. Strengthen local journalism

Just as supporters can deduct their contributions to public broadcasting stations, Congress should consider giving taxpayers credits for their newspaper subscriptions. This could bolster subscription revenue with advertising dollars in short supply. 

Capitol Hill should also keep searching for a sweet spot that allows social media platforms to continue connecting people across the world but not giving them a substantial advantage over traditional news organizations. Their advantage exists because social media organizations are not liable for the content on their sites, while traditional media companies are held responsible.

2. Think collaboratively

An emerging model prioritizes news organizations partnering to address topics. The Dallas Morning News’ Arts Access project, for example, involves a collaboration with KERA, North Texas’ public broadcasting station. Together, they report on art and cultural issues in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. Likewise, the nonprofit Texas Tribune freely shares its award-winning journalism with news organizations around Texas. And The Post-Journal in Charleston, South Carolina, partners with understaffed smaller papers to cover corruption in their communities. Similar models exist elsewhere, providing news consumers deeper reporting

3. Solutions journalism

Washington Post contributing columnist Amanda Ripley acknowledged last year that she tunes out the news because she can abide only so many crises and troubles. The veteran journalist cited a Reuters survey that shows 40% of respondents had stopped consuming news. Among the reasons? News reports left them dispirited and feeling powerless. 

We need stories that provide solutions and hope as well as knowledge about crime and corruption, as Ripley wrote. Here, the Solutions Journalism Network offers a good model. It concentrates on reporting that can help citizens solve problems, such as developing more affordable housing, creating greater economic mobility, and improving local schools. The network funds reporting projects in 15 different places, including Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Dallas.

4. Diversify views on a news staff

An emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion rightly is creating more opportunities for more Americans, including within news organizations.  

Expanding newsroom backgrounds also should include creating opportunities for people with conflicting views of the world. Newsrooms need conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike. Not so their views bleed into a news report, but so they can ensure that newsroom debates include various perspectives about what gets covered.  

As with broadening the racial and ethnic backgrounds of a newsroom, philosophical diversity can build greater trust in the media. News consumers can know people like them have a say in editorial decisions.

5. Keep objectivity as the standard

This recommendation returns us to the procedures and protocols that have guided independent journalism since it evolved in the early 1900s. No one should assume the practices of objective journalism get worked out perfectly every day. But just as we shouldn’t give up on democracy because it doesn’t get practiced right every day, we shouldn’t give up on objective journalism. 

Some, however, suggest that journalism should move beyond objectivity. They contend that adhering to it limits accurate reporting. 

But Martin Baron Jr., the former editor of the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, put it right when he recently defended objectivity: 

“We can – and should – have a vigorous debate about how a democracy and the press can serve the public better. But the answer to our failures as a society and as a profession is not to renounce principles and standards.… The answer is to restate our principles, reinforce them, recommit to them, and do a better job of fulfilling them.” 

Together, these recommendations can bolster a free press here at home and around the world. Meanwhile, let us pause today to honor the essential role independent journalism plays in keeping societies free.