Without free speech, local communities would suffer

October 23, 2019 11:00

For nearly 50 years, Edward R. Murrow Award-winning stories have been a catalyst for change in local communities. Each year, these awards recognize the impact of local journalists as a way of combating the erosion of trust in news and the rights granted to all of us through the First Amendment.
It continues to be a daunting time to be a journalist in America. This year alone, our Voice of the First Amendment Task Force has tracked more than 150 First Amendment issues in 36 states and the federal level. These range from terrorist threats targeted at journalists to obstructions to press freedom in state legislatures and courts.
Attacks on journalists come not only from people who hold high public office, but also from local jurisdictions. This trend means we must continue to produce trustworthy journalism, and we need to remind our communities that we are an important public service. We can do this best by highlighting the impact of our work.
As we celebrate Free Speech Week, here are a few examples of Murrow Award winners serving the public through journalism and combating the erosion of the First Amendment.
Investigative News and Public Trust
A news story alone can’t change a community, but a story that reaches the right people and is backed by an engaged community can. That’s what happened when WXIA began a yearlong investigation of a metro Atlanta police department. The team cultivated internal sources, and demanded access to hidden public records. Through diligent reporting, they uncovered several scandals the police department had tried to keep hidden from the community. WXIA informed the public about these abuses of power, and kept reporting on the impact and outcomes of this work. The connection between reporting the impact of journalism and the increase in public trust of news explains why broadcast ownership groups are investing substantially into investigative work. 
Broadcast Outlets Bring Life to Rural Communities
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, residents in rural communities widely report local news media cover news from outside their community. These same people also report local news media have very little influence on their communities. That’s why the work of Marfa Public Radio in West Texas is so important. Through social media, radio and its website, Marfa is reporting on topics that impact small local communities and the people who call them home – and winning awards for this work. This includes a story on the lack of end of life care options in West Texas. More than a fifth of those who live in the area are 65 or older, yet there are no assisted living facilities or hospice operations in the area. Without local broadcasters like Marfa, no one would have the resources required to start asking “why” when it comes to a communities’ toughest challenges.
Good Journalism Reaches People Where They Are
As media outlets adjust their social media strategy, more local news outlets are using social media reporting to meet the public where they are already engaging. For example, the Texas Tribune’s social media team won a Murrow Award for coverage of family separation at the border. They identified high performing tweet threads about conditions at migrant detention centers and added context to the existing conversation from the eyes of a news outlet. The Tribune is not only producing great journalism, but actively trying to bring it to the public conversation.
Every news outlets and journalist has the opportunity to impact local communities every day. It is a big job and one we carry unique responsibility for. As we consider our relationship with the public and with our work, let’s celebrate these and other examples of outstanding responsible journalism. Then, return to our newsrooms to continue the never-ending task of seeking and reporting the truth. Nothing less than the future of our society demands it.