Why journalism matters, for teachers

I’ll be adding curriculum resources detailing how to teach your students about the role of the media in a free society. But for now, I want to keep this more informal, a bit of perspective just for us teachers about why journalism matters.

In thinking about this, I like to think about Florida’s “Sunshine Laws” that make sure reporters have access to governmental meetings and records. I moved to Florida with the Associated Press after working in their Detroit bureau. It turns out, I believe, there is no sunshine in Detroit. I realized this when I had to put together a story about homicides in the city. There were two daily newspapers in Detroit at the time and they each were reporting a slightly different number of homicides, off by one. Easy enough to resolve. I picked up the phone and called the police department’s public information department. The conversation went something like this:
Police Public Information Officer: “I’m sorry, we cannot comment on that.”
Me: “Oh, that’s okay, I’m not asking for a comment. I just want to confirm the number.”
PIO: “I’m sorry, we cannot comment on that.”
Me: “But I’m just looking for the number, not a comment.
PIO: “I’m sorry, we cannot comment on that.”
Me: “I’m just trying to figure out: Is it (this number) or (that number)?”
PIO: “I’m sorry, we cannot comment on that.”
until I eventually got it through my thick skull that the public information officer of a big city police department was actually saying that they wouldn’t release simple data about the number of people killed in the city! (And from there, I realized that the newspapers had to keep their own tallies, and somehow their numbers were off from each other by one.)

That never would have happened in Florida, or some other states. This is because of so-called sunshine laws guaranteeing the public has access to, yes, public records. These complement open meetings laws, guaranteeing that any government meeting where officials acts are taken are open to the public.

The most beautiful part of it, the part that’s important to my discussion here is: these laws don’t guarantee access to the media. They guarantee access to the public.

Why are reporters allowed to cover meetings and access records? Because they are there as YOUR representative. They are there as the eyes and ears of all citizens. They’re there to tell you what is happening. In this design, the media has no real power of their own — their power lies in the fact that they represent the public, they represent every citizen who can’t attend every meeting or read every budget or analyze every legislative update.

This is why reporters matter. Because the public matters. Because people have a right to attend meetings and examine records … but they don’t always have the time, or the inclination, or the ability, and so reporters do it for them. Reporters are actually all of us (even more so now).

(Just so I’m not unclear: Michigan, like every other state, does have open records laws. They’re just less, uhm, friendly. I believe in Detroit, I could have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the numbers I wanted. It just would have taken a long time and cost a lot of money.)

To take this understanding of the media just a step or two further, I want to share this description of the “four essential roles” that a free press serves in a democratic society, given by Ellen Hume, director of the Center on Media and Society at the University of Massachusetts. This is from her article, Freedom of the Press in the December 2005 “Issues of Democracy,” and it nicely summarizes what we should expect from an independent media.

  • First, it is a watchdog on the powerful, holding them accountable to the people.
  • Second, it casts a spotlight on issues that need attention.
  • Third, it educates the citizens so they can make political choices.
  • Fourth, it connects people with each other, helping to create the social “glue” that binds civil society.

She also talks in the article about a second World Bank report, Consultations With
the Poor, that studied 20,000 poor people in 23 countries. Strikingly, to me, it found that what most “differentiates poor people from rich people is a lack of voice. The inability to be represented. The inability to convey to the people in authority what it is that they think.”

In ideal circumstances, reporters share those voices. And to explain this, I’d like to turn to a teacher. This is from an e-mail sent by a high school teacher to other teachers taking part in PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs.

“ Good Morning, all.

Today I am in at my computer, contemplating lesson plans for when our school is back in session. I do not know when we will resume, because it is currently a shelter for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Many, many of my students have lost everything.
Many, many of my students are volunteers at our school.
They all have voices that need to be heard.

Before the hurricane hit, we discussed in class how journalists are the ones who let everyone know what is happening in the world around them. When disasters strike, they are the ones who stay to give voice to the voiceless, to the unimaginable. Journalists are the link between the known and unknown when tragedy and horror are at the doorstep of the dispossessed.

During the storm I kept in contact with them via text and Remind; they checked in with me periodically, letting me know if they were safe, if they were being rescued, if they needed anything. Most of them just really wanted pizza. All of them were safe in one way or another. But their house is gone. Or they had to ride out on a boat in the middle of the night. Or they don’t know if their grandma is okay.

All these stories, waiting to be told.

I want to help guide them through this…”

Her message, I think, pretty clearly summarizes what being a journalist is all about. And it also so clearly shows what it means to be a teacher. Both making sure, as best we can, that everyone has a voice.

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