Journalists seek federal, state support for right to inform the public

Journalists seek federal, state support for right to inform the public
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Local journalists are reckoning with a new reality: The greatest threat to working in journalism is public contempt for us as a workforce.

Once diplomatic dislike for our work from some viewers, listeners and readers has grown to a substantial loss of trust in the media. This crisis of trust has opened the door to bitter hatred and unchecked physical provocation.

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In some parts of the country, it is an open secret within our industry that news outlets are regularly sending armed security with news teams when reporting in areas where robberies and holdups are increasing. Even this security measure couldn’t protect a news team in the San Francisco Bay area this week. While the robbery of the KPIX news crew was not politically motivated, it is an example of the increased risk local journalists face on the job.

Increased safety measures taken by responsible media outlets won’t fix our problem.

As journalists, we are taught to seek and report the truth no matter the personal cost. For too long we’ve kept our heads down, producing stories that have the power to change the narrative in local communities and shine light on abuses of power. But we haven’t defended the job we do in the court of public opinion. That changes now.

As the leader of the nation’s largest association of broadcast and digital journalists, I believe we need federal and state legislation to send a message that violence is not an acceptable form of criticism and that journalists serve as agents of information on behalf of the public not as enemies of the public.

At the federal level, we have vigorously advocated to make attacks on journalists a crime and to enforce the Freedom of Information Act. We supported the Journalist Protection Act introduced by Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellYoung insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate 5 takeaways from fiery Democratic debate MORE (D-Calif.) in 2018, and have encouraged a federal shield law. We are lending our support to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who plans to introduce a Senate version of the Journalist Protection Act after Swalwell’s bill died when the previous congress ended last year.

Legislation like this is important not because we believe journalists deserve special status, but because if local authorities will not take up the case on behalf of journalists who are physically attacked, federal investigators or prosecutors should be able to step in.

Under our current system led by a President keen on demonizing the work of local journalists and even encouraging physical altercations with them, we cannot rely on federal legislation alone.

We are working in conjunction with our members on state legislation that will not only keep local journalists safe, but will also place the public’s right to know above the authority of those in power who are often steadfast in their efforts to keep their business secret from the very public they serve.

In South Dakota, we suggested language for a shield law to allow journalists to protect information and sources. The bill was approved by the state’s House and the Senate with little opposition and is now headed to Gov. Kristi NoemKristi Lynn NoemNew South Dakota law requiring 'In God We Trust' sign to hang in public schools goes into effect Trump: If I say I should be on Mt. Rushmore, 'I will end up with such bad publicity' Transportation Department seeks to crack down on pipeline protests: report MORE’s desk for signing. We applaud South Dakota legislators and the Governor for moving this bill swiftly through one of the few remaining states that have not taken this protective step.

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In Montana, we have vigorously supported Democratic state Rep. Tom Woods’ bill that would increase tenfold the penalty for assaulting a journalist. Our support of this bill is an effort to stand up for reporters like the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs who was physically assaulted by then-congressional candidate Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteHouse Democrats targeting six more Trump districts for 2020 House GOP fears retirement wave will lead to tsunami Trump declares Gorka 'wins big' after clash with reporters in Rose Garden MORE (R-Mont.) in 2017. It is important to stress we aren’t advocating for special treatment. Rather, we believe this bill sets a tone that could combat public vitriol and discourage the public from crossing the line from public debate to physical attacks.

In Missouri, we are standing up for the state’s Sunshine Law that protects the public’s ability to ask for information from government agencies. Hiding behind taxpayer burden, legislators are in the process of stripping one of the strongest open records laws in the country. This is in stark contrast to the “Clean Missouri” constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in November that demands the state legislature to be more transparent.

Our member journalists are working hard to keep the public’s trust through truthful reporting, more transparency and doubling down on responsible investigative reporting that often serves as a catalyst for positive change.

To support their efforts, we are taking decisive action to strengthen laws that protect them from being positioned as the enemy of the people, and demanding enforcement of legislation that is already in place to facilitate responsible journalism on behalf of the people.

The American public deserves nothing less.

Dan Shelley is Executive Director of the Radio Television Digital News Association