Gunfire shatters a beautiful autumn day on a quiet Oregon campus. Suddenly, ten lives are extinguished. Around the nation and the world, there is shock – but it’s the shock of the familiar. This was the 294th mass shooting in America in 2015, according to a website that tracks such things. That’s more than one a day.
“Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” declared a grim US president, Barack Obama, who has labelled the failure to pass “common-sense gun safety laws” his greatest frustration.
He’s right, they’re not. What is needed is the public will to pass such laws – and a determination by the media to articulate that will and even agitate for the action it demands.
Freedom and Responsibility
American journalists tend to be eloquent in evoking their First Amendment freedoms, and rightly so. The constitutional amendment codifies a precious principle: Democracy cannot flourish in the dark.
US government censorship of the press has been rare since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Instead, journalists have restricted their own speech, not least through commitment to a norm of impartiality or “objectivity”.
How did this happen? Over time, journalists began to think of themselves as professionals – not ordinary workers but rather skilled specialists with an overarching mission of public service. In America, this social construction was closely linked to First Amendment freedoms: With significant legal rights come equally significant responsibilities to act in a way that justifies those rights. External freedom is, in theory, optimally balanced by internal restraint.
The responsibilities translate into ethical guidelines that include such things as communicating only what is verifiably true or avoiding conflicts of interest, both related to objectivity. But objectivity turns out to be an easily abused notion. A professional commitment to reporting “just the facts” provides ready justification for suppressing any expression of views about those facts – no matter how important the issue or how clear and compelling the evidence surrounding it.
Given a near-absolute freedom to speak, journalists are choosing self-imposed silence.
Guns in America
Less than five weeks ago, another US shooting made international headlines. Two Virginia journalists in their 20s, out on a routine assignment, were killed by a deranged former colleague who then posted a video of the murders on social media. The pain within the nation’s newsrooms in late August was from a cut close to the bone: not just ordinary people going about their lives but other journalists – and not journalists navigating the terrors of a faraway war but those handling a mundane story down the road.
As with the Oregon shootings, a journalistic recitation of related data promptly followed. Around 10,000 gun homicides and even more suicides each year. More than 3.2 gun homicides per 100,000 people in the United States, compared with 0.14 in Australia, 0.07 in the UK, 0.01 in Japan. Roughly one gun for every person in America, an average of seven in each household containing guns. And more.
What follows the enumeration of these terrible facts? Nothing. The news cycle moves on: there’s an election campaign to cover, a stock market dip to track, a bit of celebrity philandering to share. Without a peg, a story angle, there seems no objective justification for writing about guns or gun violence. So the topic vanishes from the media agenda until the next time someone who seemed like the nicest guy shoots his wife and children, or someone with a grudge against the world gets hold of a lethal weapon and “makes news”. Then the media reload and repeat.
Gun control laws in America are tragically inadequate, and the ubiquity and ready availability of weapons vastly more deadly than the 18th-century muskets familiar to authors of the Second Amendment (which grants the “right to keep and bear arms”) is deplorable. But deplorable too is the failure of the US media to use their own constitutionally sanctioned rights to campaign actively and insistently for change.
The First Amendment formally prohibits congressional restraint over core rights held by the nation’s citizens. In practice, it also guarantees an ability to exercise the liberties granted: of religion and peaceable assembly, of speech and the press, and of the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances”.
Speaking freely, writing freely and demanding that wrongs be righted are thus intertwined as legally protected expressions of conscience. There is of course nothing about what should be said or written. Nor is there anything about impartiality (the press of the day was obstreperously partisan) or objectivity, journalistic norms of much later vintage.
Yes, society remains well-served by those norms most of the time. When anyone with an opinion can instantly publish it, journalists cling to credibility by pursuing facts rather than perpetually grinding axes. Democratic society relies, as ever, on trustworthy information and journalists still have a crucial – if no longer exclusive – role in providing it and in holding to account those who would fabricate, withhold or manipulate it.
But sometimes, society suffers.
The media in many other democracies are less reticent about raising their voices to demand a redress of grievances. The best ones do it by combining relentless reporting with pointed commentary that contains a call to action to improve the fabric of civic life.
Quality British newspapers, for example, have recently led campaigns against, among other things, modern-day slavery (the Sunday Times), female genital mutilation (the Guardian) and London street gangs (the Evening Standard). The journalists covering such subjects gather diverse facts and perspectives but do not then pretend that all have equal weight or credence.
Little of merit can be said in support of trafficking vulnerable people into the country and forcing them into prostitution or other abusive conditions; the Sunday Times kept on writing about it until the government passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the first such legislation in Europe. Not all campaigns are as effective, but many punches do land.
American journalism once had a crusading tradition, too. A century ago, “muckrakers” took on corporate corruption, urban poverty, child employment, and other social ills. They got results. Child labour laws were enacted, giant monopolies were broken up, food inspection and safety regulations took effect. American society was, and remains, the better for those changes.
Journalists today must have the courage to find and raise their collective voice again. There will never be a better time to exercise the still-potent power of the press to push for change in laws that enable public atrocities such as the murders in Roseburg, Oregon, and private tragedies that claim so many lives every single day. The president is pleading for action, and significant majorities of Americans support changes in gun control laws, particularly more rigorous background checks but also bans on assault weapons.
US journalists have shackled themselves through nothing more binding than misplaced faith in the value of detachment over commitment and impartiality over passion. They created these chains – and they can discard them. A nation is grieving, with no end in sight. The press must exercise its paradigmatic freedom to petition, loudly, for redress.