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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of stations.

Fighting For An Independent Press

Artem Maltsey on Unsplash

In July, a Seattle judge ruled that five news outlets whose journalists covered a racial justice protest in downtown Seattle must turn over previously unreleased videos and photos shot at the demonstration to local law enforcement.

The Seattle Police Department subpoenaed the raw footage and unpublished photos in an effort to identify multiple individuals who allegedly stole firearms from unmarked police vehicles and committed multiple arsons in the area.

This ruling is a serious blow to an independent press in our neighboring state to the north and a reminder that we should not take a free press for granted.

For the press to remain free it must be allowed to operate without government interference.

Most fundamentally, the decision erodes the press’ ability to fulfill one of its most essential functions -- to act as a check on government. If sources view journalists as extensions of government power, they may choose to withhold information regarding the misconduct of public officials and agencies that deserve public scrutiny. The very essence of investigative journalism is built on the trust sources place on the press to act independently, and to protect them from retaliation for sharing sensitive or critical information. In opposing the ruling, Seattle Times Executive Editor Michele Matassa Flores wrote: “The media exist in large part to hold governments, including law enforcement agencies, accountable to the public. We don’t work in concert with government, and it’s important to our credibility and effectiveness to retain our independence from those we cover.”

The ruling also endangers the safety of all journalists. The court’s decision threatens journalists’ role as independent observers, opening the possibility that any images or video captured by reporters could be used in investigations by law enforcement. Knowing this, some may view journalists as a threat and treat them as such. As the National Press Photographers Association and Press Freedom Defense Fund wrote in a joint statement following the ruling, “It is dangerous enough for visual journalists to be covering the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests over the death of George Floyd. The last thing visual journalists want is to be seen as an arm of law enforcement, aiding attempts to gather evidence.” According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, more than 669 incidents of aggressions against journalists, including assaults, arrests, interrogations and equipment seizures, have been reported and verified during Black Lives Matter protests in cities across the U.S. since late May.

For the press to remain free it must be allowed to operate without government interference. The U.S. Constitution explicitly safeguards a free press because of the critical role it plays in our democracy --ensuring the public has the information it needs to be an informed electorate. As the revered CBS journalist and news anchor Walter Cronkite once said, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.”

Yet, outside a hodgepodge of uneven, state shield laws and a broad statement in the First Amendment that prohibits Congress from making any law that abridges the freedom of the press, no formal federal protection for journalists exists -- despite many attempts by the Society of Professional Journalists and others to get such protections enacted.

As citizens and media consumers, we should ensure that the journalists who work on our behalf each day to shine a light on government and hold those in power accountable are given the real independence they need to serve our collective national interest.

Paul Westhelle oversees management of JPR's service to the community.  He came to JPR in 1990 as Associate Director of Broadcasting for Marketing and Development after holding jobs in non-profit management and fundraising for a national health agency. He's a graduate of San Jose State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communications.