Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press

By Dr. Sylvian Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman

The world is increasingly dangerous for journalists. On average, more than 30 journalists are murdered every year, and the murderers go unpunished in nearly nine of 10 cases. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 81 journalists are currently imprisoned in Turkey. After Turkey, the worst offender is China, with 38 in jail. The 259 journalists in jail worldwide is the highest number recorded since 1990.

According to Freedom House, press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015. Amazingly, only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoy a free press; 46% have a partly free press; and sadly, 46% live with a not-free press.

Press Freedom Day on May 3
Aside from jailing journalists, the fear of litigation, the pressure to reveal sources and other forms of intimidation have inhibited journalists and promoted self-censorship. Freedom of expression is a vital moral issue and a precious human right recognized in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN celebrates Press Freedom on May 3 every year.

Free speech is an important right. We need to make decisions and monitor what is going on. What we don’t know can hurt us.

In the United States, the recent election with candidate Trump and now President Trump has raised serious issues for journalists. That politicians lie and spin the news is nothing new. What is new is the struggle to keep alive the notion of truth, and that there are objective facts.

Post-Truth politics
Traditionally and ideally, journalists are committed to robust, fact-based reporting on the issues. President Trump has promoted the idea that the media is the enemy of the people and that unfavorable news is fake news. Calling real news fake news is an attempt to hide the truth. Trump is a leading exponent of “Post-Truth’’ politics — reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact.

Another consequence of Post-Truth politics is lying and the repetition of lies. PolitFact, an organization that double-checks facts, found that about 70% of Trump’s statements actually fall in the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants-on-fire untruth.” We are far from it, but it is reminiscent of the brilliant Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell the same lie enough times, people will believe it and the bigger the lie, the better.”

The digital revolution has provided people access to an amazing amount of information, but there is no accountability. Technology helps unfiltered and unchecked ideas to spread quickly. In this new technological and Post-Truth environment, reporting faces serious challenges.

Confirmation bias
Why are some people willing to believe assertions that are not grounded in truth? Social scientists have called this Confirmation Bias, which means being drawn to information that aligns with our worldview and holding these beliefs even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary. There is a human tendency toward confirmation bias, rationalization and self deception. We have to acknowledge that we are all susceptible. Being aware of this bias can help us guard against it.

What should reporters do in this Post-Truth environment? We believe they should do their honorable, professional work and pursue the truth and get the story.

Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman, members of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County

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