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My Musings


November 2 is the day that the world recognizes the need to end impunity for crimes against journalists.  This year, I am participating in a regional symposium on freedom of the press and the safety of journalists in Doha, Qatar.

The topic is as timely today as it is every day or every year, probably even more so in 2017.

Today we live in interesting times.

These are times when our most elemental journalistic practices are being fundamentally challenged, and in some places, pushed well beyond their breaking point.  

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Our profession is literally under attack, from all manner of institutions and individuals, most of whom do not really understand what we do, how we do it, or why.

Others, simply do not care.  Their key weakness is their inability to see any value in journalism, which is often combined with their willful blindness to the integrity of the diligent professionals who practice it every day.

This inability is often based in ignorance.  Though with some, it is also born out of fear, greed, corruption, arrogance or other similar vices.

And perhaps most distressingly, some of these very same attackers also self-label themselves as “journalists” too, though they are not.

Interesting times.

But these are also times when there has never been such unlimited opportunity and capacity to connect with others all around the globe, and to share our own unique stories in new, compelling and meaningful ways.

We are blessed to live in a time when there is so much that is good to share,
and so many new tools and technologies to use in doing so.

Again, interesting times!  The coin keeps flipping, and we need to see both sides.

In the United States of America, press and media freedoms are protected by rule of law, and particularly by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Throughout the U.S.’s history, the First Amendment guaranteed Americans their right to free speech, and this right has since been endorsed by nations all around the world, as well as by the United Nations as a fundamental human right. 

Even so, those who would deny us this fundamental right continue to make their presence known.  They threaten us daily with ignorance, disinformation, lies, propaganda, and the litany of sad injustices that come with them.  They espouse “fake news” and refer to the media as “the enemy of the American people.’

Over the past decade, I have been consistently called upon to bear witness to this painful set of dark and growing realities, and to speak out against them whenever and wherever possible.

Consider, that in 7 of the past 8 years, over 100 journalists -- over 100 -- have been killed each year while doing nothing more than performing their jobs.  And in this year alone, there are already 56 such tragic and unnecessary deaths.

Any one of these sad stories would be one too many.  We simply cannot allow people to be threatened, coerced, attacked or murdered in cold blood for doing their jobs, for recording the essential truths of the world around them as they experience it. As members of civilized societies, and as thinking human beings and people of conscience we cannot tolerate these attacks!

So, we need to always remember this ourselves, and to continually remind those who might like us to forget it that these freedoms our ours, collectively, and that we will continue to come together and speak out to protect them!

It’s also important to remember, however, that our freedom does come with its own specific set of responsibilities, too.

As author Finley Peter Dunne once said famously of us as journalists, our job is "to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable."

And it is true that as journalists, we are the guardians of free speech, but at the same time we are also held to very high standards in exercising this right to self-expression in the public marketplace of ideas ourselves.  In the era of the Internet and social media, we must not allow the race to be first to compromise our journalistic ethics.

As U.S. President John F. Kennedy said, in a speech given shortly before his assassination in 1963: it "is our obligation to inform and alert the .. people -- to make certain that they possess all the facts that they need, and understand them as well -- the perils, the prospects, the purposes of our program and the choices that we face."

Some facts are hard. Some choices are difficult.  Some questions have complicated answers.  But our goal is to fill in the blanks wherever possible so that this information —even when the consequences of its revelation may be difficult, can still be put to use in service to the greater good.

And so we cannot allow ourselves to indulge in rumor mongering, in false accusations, or gossip.  We are not in the business of advertising, or so called "info-attainment."  We aren’t seeking to be aligned with the winner or loser, or to advocate for this position or that.

Instead, we must continually rededicate ourselves to becoming and remaining our society's trusted sources of unbiased, useful, timely, and above all, accurate, information, by dealing in facts.  Provable facts, not opinion.

When we do so, we help to educate our fellow citizens.

We may even inspire them to hope, dream, and seek new opportunity; whether for themselves, their families, their communities, or for all of mankind.

Or at the very least, we need to find practical ways to help each other to ask the questions that need to be asked, and then to find and share the information necessary to answer these important questions of the day.

English novelist George Orwell reminded us that:  “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

Our freedoms are ours to celebrate only so long as we employ them together, responsibly.

Our criticisms will be valid only so long as they are factual, necessary and delivered according to the standards which govern our profession.  That means adhering to the journalism code of ethics – online and off.

And if we find ourselves to be among the so called “opposition,” so be it, so long as we retain our own essential decency, integrity and respect for our fellow man, and remain committed to pursuing these for the benefit of all.

Alison Bethel McKenzie is a veteran journalist and non-profit leader who has also conducted media training for journalists in 15 countries. You can follow her at www.alisonbethelmckenzie.com, on Facebook at Alison Bethel McKenzie or via Twitter at @bethelmckenzie

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