As deans of journalism and communication schools at some of the country’s leading research universities, we stand together to reaffirm our belief that journalism is critical for a functional democracy. This principle is especially true now, at a time of national reckoning.
The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and now Rayshard Brooks have forced Americans to once again confront systemic racism, specifically against African Americans. At the same time, the pain and protests in the streets have challenged journalists to redouble efforts to hold the powerful accountable in public institutions, including police departments, governments and education.
More than ever, there is a need for a factual context and cultural perspective that helps citizens better understand the nation’s history of racial intolerance and the fullness of emotion leading people to America’s streets as advocates for change. We must uncover the facts and tell the stories that serve the public, wherever those stories lead.
In attempting to do this work, journalists themselves are increasingly under attack. Since May 25, the day Minneapolis police killed Floyd, more than 430 reports of acts of aggression have been filed by journalists with Press Freedom Tracker (there are different ways of tracking this, but the more than 430 is correct as of June 17). Some of those acts came at the hands of police, others at the hands of protestors.
A certain amount of risk goes with journalists’ work. We sometimes put ourselves in harm’s way to better inform the public. But the kind of systematic targeting of democracy’s watchdogs that we are now seeing in the U.S. has no precedent and no place in a nation that celebrates free speech and the First Amendment. It runs counter to the values that have made the American brand of independent journalism the envy of the world
We are especially mindful of the burden our colleagues of color are shouldering. They are being asked to remain unflinchingly dispassionate while covering stories that could not be more excruciatingly personal to themselves and their loved ones. In some cases, they have been the targets of overtly discriminatory attacks.
As leaders of institutions that often host students and fellows from other countries, we are acutely aware that the constitutional protection of the press in America has set a global standard. As the situation deteriorates for journalists here, the conditions for colleagues around the world become even grimmer.
The need for journalists who produce evidence-based, accountability journalism increases every day. Journalism schools teach students about professional standards and how to uphold them. Time-honored methods of news gathering — from impartial fact-gathering and data analysis to investigative techniques and storytelling – can help reestablish trust in institutions – our own, and the ones we cover.
During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, reporters played a crucial role in telling the stories that helped the nation address overt racism and Jim Crow laws. Our students and our graduates are eager to do the same.
But journalists cannot share these accounts in an atmosphere of terror, and they cannot do it alone. They need the support of the public and of civic and political leaders who understand the role that public service journalism plays in a civil society. We call on political leaders and our fellow citizens to understand what is at stake here: The stories journalists are trying to tell are yours. And so is the speech we are fighting to protect.
In doing this important work at a defining moment in American history, we also recognize our own responsibilities. As journalism schools, we stand with our students, faculty, staff and alumni in recommitting ourselves to confronting and challenging racism in our communities and in our institutions. In doing so, we can create more inclusive environments and better prepare the future generations of journalists to shed light, tell truth and help citizens meet the challenges in our society.
Willow Bay, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California
Jay M. Bernhardt, Dean and Professor, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin
Steve Coll, Dean, Columbia Journalism School, Columbia University
Lucy Dalglish, Professor and Dean, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland
Kristin Gilger, Interim Dean, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University
Susan King, Dean, Hussman School of Journalism and Media, University of North Carolina
David D. Kurpius, Professor and Dean, Missouri School of Journalism, University of Missouri
Mark Lodato, Dean Designate, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University
Shari Veil, Professor and Dean, College of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Edward Wasserman, Professor and Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California-Berkeley
Charles Whitaker, Dean and Professor, Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, Northwestern University