2018 in journalism: The bad, the ugly and the good

December 26, 2018 12:00

I hate to say it, but I told you so.
In a year-end column I wrote in the closing days of 2017, I said, “It pains me greatly to predict that the nearly unprecedented attacks on press freedom we experienced in 2017 will continue for at least the next year in the United States.”
Now, as 2018 comes to a close, I fully acknowledge that last year’s prognostication is a rare case in which I am not happy to have been right.
To be sure, there are indicators of optimism for 2019, but it’s important to acknowledge this year’s problems to put those predictors in perspective.

The Bad

According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for attacks on journalism in the United States, five journalists were murdered in America in 2018, four at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and the fifth, Zack Stoner, a Chicago independent journalist who reported extensively on rap music, gangs and other issues.
At the Capital Gazette, a man with a years-long vendetta against the paper for its coverage of a court matter in which he had been involved stormed into the newspaper’s offices on June 28, gun a-blazing. Even though police arrived quickly, the assassin had already murdered Rob Hiaasen, columnist and assistant editor; Gerald Fischman, editorial page editor; John McNamara, community news and sports reporter; Wendi Winters, community news reporter and columnist; and a fifth person, Rebecca Smith, an ad sales assistant. The attacker was arrested.
Stoner was shot and killed as he drove the streets of Chicago May 30. His YouTube reports on inner-city issues had produced at least a handful of death threats in the months leading up to his murder, and there had been a break-in at his home during which his equipment had been stolen.
While not murdered in the United States, the October 2 assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi who was a U.S. resident, continues to be the subject of international outrage, except from the leader of the free world. Despite a definitive conclusion by the CIA that Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul on orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, President Trump continues to insist, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Before Khashoggi’s murder had been confirmed, RTDNA, the Society of Professional Journalists and 28 other press freedom organizations sent a letter to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador the U.S. demanding answers.
There were two other journalists killed in the U.S. in 2018, although not at the hands of someone enraged by their work. Rather, as the local fire chief put it, a “freak of nature” took the lives of WYFF-TV anchor/reporter Mike McCormick and photojournalist Aaron Smeltzer on Memorial Day. The Greenville, South Carolina, journalists were covering heavy rains and flooding in nearby Tryon, North Carolina, when the roots of a giant tree became unmoored from the water-logged soil causing it to fall on their SUV, killing them instantly. When rescuers arrived, the vehicle was still running. The transmission was still in drive.
In September, at our Excellence in Journalism conference in Baltimore, RTDNA venerated McCormick and Smeltzer by awarding them honorary life memberships, a designation extended only to journalists killed in the line of duty.

The Ugly

Throughout this past year, journalists have been consistently obstructed and intimidated merely for fulfilling their constitutionally-guaranteed responsibility to create a more informed and educated society by seeking and reporting the truth.
Perhaps the highest profile incident in that regard was the Trump administration’s revocation of CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s “hard pass” press credentials, hours after he’d had the audacity to attempt to ask a follow-up question at a presidential news conference the day after the midterm elections. CNN had to take the administration to court to get Acosta’s credentials restored, a lawsuit RTDNA strongly supported.
While the White House/Acosta kerfuffle got a lot of attention, the RTDNA Voice of the First Amendment Task Force monitored more than 175 other incidents in Washington and communities across the country in which journalists were either attacked, threatened or otherwise hindered while doing their jobs.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker shows there were 42 journalists physically attacked during the year.
One of the more notable occurrences happened in late October, in the final weeks of the 2018 campaign, when a man from Florida – whose vehicle was almost entirely covered in pro-Trump, anti-Democrat stickers and posters – allegedly sent pipe bombs to prominent progressive political figures and two to CNN’s New York offices. Thankfully, none of the explosive devices detonated, but there was for a time a clear and present danger.
That prompted RTDNA to write an open letter, which stated, in part, “It is the responsibility of the journalists of America to keep their heads down and continue to do the important work to which they were called. Don’t succumb to intimidation and fear. Watch your backs, but don’t back down.”
Thankfully, thousands of journalists across America are, indeed, watching their backs but not backing down. They are doubling down on responsible journalism by being more transparent, more thorough and more persistent in their efforts to inform the public. That is what is fueling my optimism for the months and years to come.

The Good

As 2018 was coming to an end, we started to see a reversal of the lack of public trust in the news media that had been exacerbated during the bitter, vitriolic 2016 presidential campaign.
A Gallup poll released in the autumn showed that reversal in indisputable empirical fashion, demonstrating a notable uptick in trust of the news reported on television, radio and print.

The poll even showed growth in trust among people identifying as Republicans, which had been in the tank after countless invocations of the pejoratives “fake news” and “enemy of the people.” That said, there remains a wide disparity between those Republicans and self-identifying Democrats. Gallup says 72% of Democrat respondents trust the media, while only 21% of Republicans do. Forty-two percent of political independents have confidence in the veracity of the news they consume.
Sure, if you’re a glass-half-empty person, you may be inclined to bemoan the fact that there’s such a wide disparity among those on either end of the ideological spectrum. You may even be disturbed that trust is still below 50%, and way below the good old days of the post-Watergate era, when 72% of those surveyed trusted the media. That shows that more still needs to be done, but any improvement in today’s environment is good, to be sure.
Mercifully, researchers at Louisiana State University have provided a roadmap for continuing to build the public’s trust in the journalism America produces. The authors of a new study conclude that a robust response to assaults on journalism’s credibility coupled with enhanced efforts to ensure that facts reported are really true will fuel the recovery documented by Gallup. Or, in their words, that a “combination of defense of journalism with fact checking could help … restor[e] trust in and use of mainstream news while restoring faith in the attainability of political facts.”
Finally, a study by the Stanton Foundation, reported by RTDNA December 18, shows, “Local television news is poised to maintain its position as the de facto leader in local news coverage, thanks to yearly increases in total revenue, stable employment, and relatively robust viewership numbers.”
From my perspective as the leader of the world’s largest professional association devoted exclusively to broadcast and digital journalism, 2018 was, without dispute, a tough year. It was difficult for the men and women who report the news across the land, many of whom, sadly, had to work against the efforts of those attempting to stymie their endeavors by whatever means necessary.
But as I look through my prism toward the future, I see signs of hope. I see companies that staff newsrooms investing more in investigative and explanatory reporting, in holding the powerful accountable, and in persevering in the effort to ensure citizens are kept informed regarding what public officials are doing in their name.
And I take great solace in the fact that so many journalists are heeding the admonition that I and others have been giving for at least the last year and a half: The only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism.
In this new year, I wish for you happiness, good health, and a continued capacity to perform flagrant acts of responsible reportage.