The Fourth Estate (Free Press) in the United States of America is thriving in the middle of possibly the most challenging times for media in the US today.
Having the honor of being selected by the US Department of State to participate in the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists, I joined 24 journalists from across Asia and Pacific on a 21-day, 15-flight, 4-city journey to see how media across America is faring in these challenging times.
Facing new challenges brought about by the advent of digital media and the current anti-media narrative at national level, news media in the US from national newsrooms to small town newsrooms are evolving and thriving under the challenging landscape.
PEW Reports that media outlets employees dropped by about 23% in the last 10 years and those in newspaper newsrooms show higher decline of 45%.
Talking with reporters and editors across 4 cities, from Voice of America editors in Washington D.C., to broadcasters at KOTV in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to publisher Jeffrey Parra of Muskogee Phoenix of Muskogee, Oklahoma (still getting that song out of my head), to Akron Beacon Journal reporter of Akron, Ohio to editor of The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, among others, all echoed the same challenges as well as excitement in rising up to those challenges.
Seeing this translate at the grassroots level during probably one of the most watched US mid-terms elections, US media in all forms, digital and print, continue to inform communities of issues relevant and critical for day to day decision making. Tulsa, Oklahoma, a deeply red State, elected a good number of democrat educators to local political positions based on public awareness of the need to fund their education programs better, retaining good qualified teachers and prioritizing funding for schools. The Advocate in Louisiana’s reports led to arrest and incarceration of New Orleans mayor for corruption, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Digital media may be leading cause in the reduction of newsroom employees but it is also leading the evolution of media landscape, structure, scope and tools. Digital media and technology brings access to immense information caches and networks that were not readily available before. This enables small and large, profit and non-profit news outlets access to vital information at much lesser cost than before.
Number of small sized non-profit investigative journalism groups have risen in recent years that are focused on investigating in-depth issues and/or cases. One such famous entity is the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which brought out the Panama Papers story. Another much smaller entity is the Frontier which is a non-profit investigative reporting website in Oklahoma that undertakes investigative reporting, serving as “watchdog” at local and state level. These groups are funded by grants from foundations instead of advertisements which enable them to focus on more substantial topics that take more time to investigate and compile.
Digital media’s another challenge is the inundation of “news” that are not verified, that may be manufactured for malicious reasons or entertainment and yet treated like news. This makes it difficult for consumers of news to differentiate between “real” news and “fake” news.
In wake of this challenge, a new media off-shoot is growing, creating sources and programs for fact-checking the news. These include Truthbuzz, Poynter Institute, Politifact, Factchecker and others that provide journalists with means to check facts before they report.
While media and journalists in the United States may not face life-and-death scenarios in their daily activity like most in the rest of the world, recent events during this trip placed more focus on the threat to journalists and media in the US and the world.
The murder of New York Times journalist Kamal Khashoggi in Turkey and the removal of CNN’s reporter Jim Acosta from press briefing in the White House, exemplify the challenges media and journalists are facing around the world today, in trying to keep everyday people informed of what is going on around their towns, counties, cities, countries and the world at large.
This journey showed that with all these challenges, America will continue to be a great nation if its media has anything to say about it.
I have an old-fashioned belief that Americans like to make up their own minds on the basis of all available information.
-Edward R. Murrow