The public has a right to know what is happening around them. But in a world that is increasingly global, where facts are often unclear and technological developments often blur the distinction between the real and the fake, how can journalists ensure that this right is met? When decisions made on one point of the planet often affect people on the other side, it is vital that journalists can maintain first hand access to leaders, no matter where they are. Without this, we would be without perspective, without context, and in some cases, without the truth.
It’s a description I have heard more than once when people describe what it is like to be a journalist. In a sense, it’s absolutely true. We cover events as they happen, before they happen and after they happen. We sometimes arrive on-scene before first responders. We listen, we watch, we question, we try to understand.
Being in a position to experience history first-hand may sound like an incredibly exciting opportunity, and sometimes it is, but it is an opportunity that comes with great responsibility.
Why? While a journalist is watching a natural disaster or government meeting unfold in front of them, they are not just experiencing it, they are trying to remember everything while using their judgement and knowledge to decipher what information, and in what context, is the most important to share with the public.
I think – and certainly hope – we can agree the public has a right to certain information, a right to know what is happening around them. It’s a journalist’s role to fill that need and that right.
Sometimes that role is easy. We have straight facts. Nobody disputes them. Story deadline met early. Most of the time though it’s more complicated. Very rarely are the facts cleanly laid out on a platter in front of us. Even rarer: all sides agreeing with what is being said.
This is becoming more and more the case when political leaders and those with power are involved. Between public relations teams bigger than some newsrooms and direct communication through social media, access to politicians, government employees and business leaders is becoming increasingly difficult.
In a world that is becoming more global, where decisions made on one point of the planet can often affect people on the other side, it is vital that journalists can access leaders no matter where they are if the public is to understand how governments and businesses are operating, and what impact their decisions will have, close and far. Lack of access is a threat to democracy and freedom. And at the end of the day, it’s the public who suffers the most.
Technology has made communication easier than ever but it has also allowed an ever more confusing mix of information to take over our inboxes and social feeds, making it harder than ever before to sort fact from fiction. As digital technology progresses, manipulated photographs, videos and sound recordings are less and less distinguishable from truthful originals, while armies of bots, less and less distinguishable from humans, can spread those fabricated facts and the stories they support wider and wider.
With all of this information coming so quickly, journalists have to make sure they are deciphering what is real and what is fake – and on this basis, what are facts, what is opinion, and what is pure propaganda. Once that is figured out, the task is to then make sure they can talk to the right stakeholders and the people who will be impacted.
All of this becomes more difficult when meetings are held behind closed doors or information is withheld to protect those in power, particularly when crucial decisions are made in distant international forums. If journalists are not allowed access to meetings or information, the public is left in the dark as well. Without access, without information, journalists have a harder time doing their jobs, which is to keep you informed.
When journalists have access, they can fulfill their public duty: attending long, sometimes arduous, government meetings, public hearings and court cases, so the public knows what is happening in their community and beyond, how they could be impacted and what people in power are doing.
In some cases this means journalists are provided special access members of the public are not. I have been asked more than once why this access is important. Why do journalists get access to a president, a prime minister, a CEO or government meetings?
The answer is, it’s all for you.
Without journalists and without access we would be without perspective, without context, and in some cases, without the truth.
Without this access the public would be left in the dark, with only information coming from those in power. Would you trust that completely? I don’t. So, it’s journalists that listen to what those in power have to say, then research, fact-check and provide context to what the powerful say.
Journalists seek truth and report it. We do so by minimizing harm to those involved. We act independently. We are transparent. We hold ourselves accountable.
We produce stories that do not make everyone happy. When we hold the powerful accountable, they push back. While it may be easy to take what they say personally and even easier to back off our questioning, we push forward and continue digging. We do this because our stories can help oppressed communities. Our stories can shed light into the darkest pit.
That’s why maintaining journalists’ access to the government, powerful institutions and individuals is so important. While there is more information available from more sources than ever (which is a great thing), the role of a journalist, to help people make sense of it all, is also more important than ever – particularly when things make sense only through complex chains of causality that extend beyond the boundaries of a single country.
As journalists we must keep this in mind ourselves. When we are given access, we must remember we have this access for the public. We must not let our personal relationships get in the way. We must remember that access does not mean we will turn a blind eye or ignore something we see, no matter the consequences.
The same holds true in our newsrooms, when we hand the story over to an editor or a publisher, we must make sure that the people we saw and the voices we heard are indeed highlighted, not those an editor or publisher wants to highlight from an office, a block, or a nation away.
When it comes to global stories this is particularly important. We may think that reaching across the planet through phone calls or video chats is enough to say that we have obtained access. But actually living somewhere, immersed in a culture, is different from Skyping in once in a while. Many facts will get lost at a distance, and even when they don’t, without an understanding of the context, they will fail to make proper sense.
As journalists, we need to be where news is happening. We need to be inside meetings with the stakeholders. We need to be walking alongside the protesters to see what they see. We need to meet the community. We need access. The public needs access.
Without journalists and without access we would be without perspective, without context, and in some cases, without the truth. We would live in a world where propaganda is accepted and facts can be debated.
Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning freelance journalist, creating content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News project. She is currently based in San Diego, USA, and regularly contributes to Voice of San Diego, the Sunlight Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalists. Lynn also is an adjunct professor at Point Loma Nazarene University.