What the Coronavirus Means for US Press Freedom and Polarization

With details continuing to emerge about the extent of Beijing’s crackdown on information and news reports around the coronavirus epidemic, The Miami Herald published an analysis by Charles Koch Institute’s Sarah Ruger about the role a free and independent press plays in protecting public health and political health too. In it she notes:

The free flow of information is a necessary preventative to spread of a contagion. And a strong, independent press is a powerful inoculation against all manner of ills, physical and political.

Journalism gives people access to information and empowers them to hold those in power to account. In 2018, Columbia Journalism Review and CityLab highlighted a study that found cronyism and corruption are likely to increase when community newspapers close.

… [And] while U.S. newspapers aren’t yet forbidden to report on the health of Americans, local journalism is weakening. And the culture is becoming antagonistic, and these social norms affect the ability of journalists to do their job.

Cries of “fake news,” complaints about bias and calls for “retribution” from the president and those seeking to replace him affect cultural attitudes regarding the media, and could have a deep and lasting effect on how the public perceives the press. A 2017 Economist/YouGov Poll found a third of Americans favor fining news outlets they see as biased or inaccurate.

It’s a dangerous trend – and all the more dangerous when it affects the ability of health care professionals to spread potentially life-saving news in a timely manner.

Vladimir Lenin once asked, “Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?” His regime provided the only answer we should need, but a growing body of academic research makes it clear the fourth estate is necessary to address what ails our own society.

Read the full commentary here.

We work alongside a diverse mix of partners who deepen understanding about the essential role of media in an open society, including the Poynter-Koch Media & Journalism Fellowship expanding opportunities for early-career journalists, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University navigating challenges to free speech in a digital age, and Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse understanding how media and other watchdogs can access information.

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