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Unsettling thoughts: College students and a press-optional society

Sunday, May 1, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
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By Ken Paulson

There are lots of unsettling numbers surrounding the news business these days - circulation figures and ad revenue among them – but a survey of college students offers up some truly disconcerting findings concerning their views of a free press. 

About half – 49 percent - of college students believe that protesters should be able to bar the press from an event if they believe the reporters would be unfair, according to a new poll from Gallup, The Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute. Similarly, 48 percent believe reporters have no right to cover a protest if the protesters “say they have a right to be left alone,” and 44 percent say the journalists should be blocked if the protesters prefer to tell their own story on social media.  

Resentment of the news media is nothing new, of course. Vice President Spiro Agnew primed the pump during the Nixon administration and allegations of media bias have been widespread ever since.   In 1992, that was manifested in “Annoy the Media – Vote for Bush” bumper stickers and less whimsical expressions in recent years. In the view of our critics, we were unfair, irritating and ever-present.  

Contrast that with the take of a new generation: We have no right to be somewhere if the newsmakers believe we will be biased, they want to be left alone or simple prefer to do it themselves.  Of particular irony is that those who embrace the right of assembly in the First Amendment fail to see the scope or importance of the free press clause.  

Obviously, protests are public events; a private protest wouldn’t accomplish much.  Nor would it generate the kind of press coverage that has amplified the power of protest throughout our nation’s history. 

Other discouraging results of the survey: 

• A full 59 percent of college students say they have little or no trust in the press to report the news fairly and accurately. 

• Only 51 percent say they would first turn to a traditional news organization to get an understanding of the issues they care about.  

Oddly, 90 percent of the college students polled see a free press as critical to democracy and 70 percent say student protesters shouldn’t be able to prevent reporters from covering them.  

These are lofty and encouraging views, and of course, in clear conflict with the rest of the survey results.

A free press can’t fully play its critical role in a democracy if it’s not trusted and if only about half the population wants it around. 

America’s news media face daunting challenges well beyond the obvious economic concerns.  How can we win over a generation that truly doesn’t seem to value the role a free press plays in making this a stronger, more diverse and more just society?

Somehow we need to instill in our youngest Americans a love of being informed and knowledgeable. They need to understand that “media” isn’t singular, and that there’s an amazing array of news providers they can meet their information needs. The growing efforts of civic and media literacy campaigns represent our best hope in this regard.

We also need to do a much better job of teaching about the First Amendment, and for that matter the entire Bill of Rights, in America’s grade schools and high schools.  Freedom of conscience and expression contained in the First Amendment sets this nation apart from all others. 

The First Amendment plays a critical role in the daily life of every American. Yet it gets no more than a nod in most history books and may amount to a single class session in the academic career of a typical high school student.  It’s like an edition of Moby Dick with one page about the whale.   

In the end, though, our best vehicle to make the case for a free press is our own high-impact reporting and ongoing commitment to the communities we serve. Stories that change lives will also change minds.

Ken Paulson is the president of the First Amendment Center and Dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University.


Associated Press Media Editors

APME is a professional network, a resource for helping editors and broadcasters improve their news coverage and newsroom operations.

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