June 2022 President's Message: Professional communicators have important roles to play in defending democracy
This year’s commencement address at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, was delivered by Sheila Coronel, who began her journalism career in the Philippines during the waning years of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and helped found and lead the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in the 1980s. The center’s reporting was instrumental in exposing the corruption of Philippine President Joseph Estrada and ousting him from power in 2001. I was lucky to witness Coronel’s commencement address because my daughter was among Kenyon College’s graduating class. It was one of the best speeches I have heard, but the message was far from comforting.
With a member of the Marcos family newly elected president in the Philippines, authoritarian regimes rising around the world, and democracy under attack even in strongholds such as the United States, Coronel told the students that while their elders have accomplished great things – moving the dial on gender, racial and ethnic equality, helping birth democracy across the world and bringing opportunity to many – they made a grave mistake.
“We have proven to be poor caretakers of democracy… We were complacent,” she said. “We believed that the arc of history bending towards justice was inevitable – so inevitable we no longer had to work at it… We were wrong.”
We all know that press freedom is vital to democracy, and we have learned that a responsible press that has the trust of the people is integral as well. Coronel addressed shortcomings in this area, too. “We have failed to defend – to protect you – from an assault on science, on truth and on facts,” she told the graduates.
One warning sign of declining global democracy came last month with the release of the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders. This is the 20th publication of the index, which examines and ranks the state of journalism in 180 countries, taking into account factors including press-freedom violations, rights abuses against journalists and the perspectives of academics, human-rights experts and members of the press themselves. The situation is classified as “very bad” in a record number of 28 countries in this year’s Index. Recent developments in Russia, which is on the index’s “red list” and where the government now has almost complete control of the media, illustrate the connection between authoritarian regimes and assaults on press freedom.
The United States ranks No. 42 in the 2022 report, barely making it into the “satisfactory” category and only slightly improved after being classified a "problematic" place for journalists to work in 2019.
Democracy “requires constant tending,” Coronel said, and we can do our part by promoting ethical journalism and by battling and calling attention to infringements of the Freedom of Information Act and other “sunshine” laws that protect open government and access to public information.
It’s not enough anymore just to do our jobs well. With attacks on the press increasing dramatically, with disinformation having a tremendous advantage over facts in terms of social-media virality and with journalistic ethics falling to the wayside even in some mainstream news organizations, Coronel summed up the situation thusly: “Today two information worlds coexist and rarely engage with each other: One is based on fact, the other, on fantasy.”
This divide can be pierced only by those who clearly see it – and journalists and other professional communicators are chief among them. We must educate the public about what we do and what integrity in reporting looks like so they can regain confidence in us and in their own ability to learn the truth about important topics. We must encourage them to verify sources, bust myths and deconstruct narratives.
It won’t be easy. But progress is being made. States including Illinois, Colorado, Texas, Ohio and Florida have policies requiring media literacy in their education standards, according to Media Literacy Now, an organization that lobbies to get media-literacy-education language into legislation. The News Literacy Project, a strong and well-funded nonprofit, has developed and is constantly updating a variety of engaging curricula and resources for educators and people of all ages and backgrounds. NLP curriculum is being taught in classrooms across the United States and in other countries. As a communications specialist for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, I am excited that NLP’s senior director of professional learning, John Silva, will be holding a workshop with 500 female union carpenters from across the United States and Canada in August. I am also excited that Alabama Media Professionals has formed a news-literacy committee that will be collaborating with the News Literacy Project and other organizations to get news-literacy curriculum into more K-12 schools, colleges and universities in Alabama as well as into state education standards. If you would like to be involved in these efforts, please email me at email@example.com
I highly recommend listening to or reading Sheila Coronel’s entire commencement address here. She ended her speech with information about “vagrant birds,” individuals who wander beyond their species’ normal range of movement to explore new worlds and possibilities and seed new life. On that note, I encourage you to attend this month’s AMP workshop, where we’ll hear from speakers engaged in innovative forms of communication, including hyper-local media and movement and solidarity journalism, that could help strengthen our democracy. I hope to see you there.
— Olivia McMurrey