Journalism is very well known as an indispensable fact-checker and guardian which puts accountability on powerful figures. Without this field, it would be very difficult for many in the general populace to learn about important global events. However, with the rise of the internet and misinformation campaigns one must ask: does journalism still hold its former integrity? Looking at the history of journalism and its modern rendition will shed light on its role in expressing and protecting speech. This is especially important during this time of crisis, as having a reliable source of information is crucial for battling COVID-19.
Modern journalism is said to have begun around the 16th century, with one of the first major pieces published being on the Great Storm of 1703 in Britain. Journalism is notable for being the unofficial “fourth estate,” monitoring the other estates of government. It has pushed many boundaries here in the U.S., too, showing willingness to break away from convention. An example of this is one of the first anti-slavery newspapers, which was heavily criticized, yet showed it was willing to sacrifice mainstream beliefs at the time for the greater good. While we like to think that the media keeps our government in check, one does not have to look far back to see where it has failed.
Some may remember that during the Vietnam War, the press was censored from revealing the gruesome details of the U.S. military campaign. Americans didn’t even know why our soldiers were fighting there, as revealed by Walter Cronkite and the Pentagon Papers. This purposeful misinformation shook the U.S. civilian population's confidence in Washington and the news outlets to this day. Some political scientists, such as Paul H. Weaver, think that journalism and politics have “become ensnared in a symbiotic web of lies that misleads the public.” It can seem like journalism has become corrupted beyond hope nowadays, with our 18.5-year war in Afghanistan proving equally as fruitless and deceptive as Vietnam. However, I feel that in most respects we still need journalism to inform us, if only with some extra caution, and that we must start proving its worth from the bottom up, beginning with local journalism.
“Journalism’s change in format does not diminish its relevance in the modern era,” said Jen Mackay, an assistant professor in the communications department.
The fourth estate’s work on the local level through police departments, city council and tax spending give the common person an idea of what’s going on. One can see this through how much journalism has aided and detracted from the battle against the coronavirus. On the one hand, local journalism has been very helpful in getting people to socially isolate themselves in the U.S., along with taking proper sanitary measures. Many of us have already seen how to flatten the coronavirus curve, with new information coming out of Italy on decreasing cases. Mark Zuckerburg has said small outlets are an “incredibly important” source of information, which is why he committed $100 million to support struggling outlets through the crisis. On the other hand, disinformation and news outlets choosing to play down the threat of the virus has led to numerous people becoming ill, along with a decline in trust of the government and certain broadcasting networks.
If we are to get through this crisis, we must prepare to make sacrifices beyond the norm. This includes providing accurate coverage on the virus without breaking things down in terms of political motivations and garnering headlines. Journalism has served as a faithful medium to disseminate information that affects us as citizens, so it is our duty that we ensure its continued reliability and expression.