Closer to home, when a young woman investigative reporter took on a state agency in Raleigh, retaliation came in the form of a lawsuit and an expensive reputation-busting trial.
Along with the digital storytelling skills students develop at our school, they are also learning and embracing the concepts and power of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment.
Economic disruption and technological innovation has the news business in transition — experimenting with pay walls, video streaming and how to better attract and engage audiences. While students are preparing for the future of an industry we can’t predict, they are also focused on basic foundational values that are as old as the republic.
Students today understand the promise of the Founding Fathers who protected the country against unchecked government power. The American ideal of a free press is fundamental to the balance of power envisioned by those who wrote our Constitution.
Yes, Thomas Jefferson lobbied for protections for journalists, but then he felt their sting when he was president. The job of a journalist is not to make anyone feel comfortable — even a Founding Father. Jefferson was quick to acknowledge that he’d prefer a government with newspapers than one without.
Today, the ideals and the rhetoric around the function of the free press face off with the reality of a murder of a journalist who reported on a regime’s corruption. Our students see that. They also see the embarrassing overstep by a White House unhappy with a press corps that challenges a president’s authority and asks — and re-asks — questions that are not answered. In the news business, we like to say there are no stupid questions — just stupid answers.
Whether we like a reporter’s style or not, the role of the press is fundamental in American democracy, and our students are made even more determined in this era of cynicism and distrust to join the ranks of ethical journalists who serve as the citizens' watchdogs on government.
Press freedoms and trust in the media are under assault. We must prepare our students both to defend their rights and to rebuild trust with the American public. Standing together as a profession is not the natural strong suit for a highly competitive news business. But that commitment to the profession is also part of our message to students.
Any president and any White House staff are critical players in America’s democratic story, and we believe our students and professional journalists must respect the institution of the presidency. However, elected leaders are temporary players in American history. Tough, skeptical journalism is not temporary in a democracy.
Vigilance. Safeguarding of rights. First Amendment protections. These are all issues we put squarely on our students’ agendas. We challenge them to think about and understand fundamental rights and to help their audiences understand and appreciate journalists’ role in U.S. democracy.
In this time of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and Jim Acosta’s credential revocation, a new generation of young journalists is ready, willing and able to uphold the ideals of this great American profession. We believe they are prepared for the challenge.
Dean, UNC School of Media and Journalism