What Does It Mean to Be a Media Ally Today?

Last week I received the Lew Hill Media Ally award, named for the founder of Pacifica – the first non-commercial community funded radio network. Hill’s pioneering vision for nonprofit, community supported media in America is a constant inspiration in the work I do advocating for the next generation of public and noncommercial media our communities need. The media landscape has shifted radically since Hill founded Pacifica, but the need for fiercely independent journalism remains. Given that fact, what does it mean to be a “media ally” today?

Below is a version of the remarks I gave at the awards ceremony, hosted by Press Pass TV.

I’m a journalist by circumstance, not by training. I fell into journalism through my passion for education and my concern over whose stories get told in our media, and whose voices are silenced. When I joined Free Press, I was motivated by a desire to not only fix the bad media I saw all around me, but also to support and marshal resources towards the great media I saw striving to take root.

At Free Press I work with an amazing team fighting to amplify the voice of people across the nation in the media policy debates that shape everything we watch, read, see and hear. Combining the tools of research and journalism with the tactics of organizing and education we are media allies, but also media watchdogs. We are fighting right now to defend and expand public media, block further media consolidation, remove barriers to nonprofit journalism, and ensure all people have access to a free and open internet.

At the intersection of all of these issues is a fundamental question about how we as a nation understand the role of the First Amendment in a digital age. Leaving religion aside for the moment consider how the Internet and new technologies have challenged old assumptions about freedom of expression:

What does freedom of the press mean when everyone has a publishing platform in their pocket? What does freedom of assembly mean when we increasingly assemble online? What does freedom of speech mean when we speak online in the confines of private social networks instead of public squares?

These are not easily answered questions, but I think part of the role of a media ally right now is to help foster the debate that might get us closer to answers.

This mission is at the heart of Free Press’s work: engaging people on and offline in the critical debates about their media, and providing concrete tools for them to make real change. Working at the structural policy level can feel one step removed from daily work of independent media makers and journalists who we advocate for. But occasionally that gap closes and questions of policy have a direct, immediate and visible impact on people’s lives right before our eyes. The last nine months, in which journalists have been arrested almost weekly, have been an example of one of those times, highlighting the distinct need for media allies right now.

Speaking Out Against Journalist Arrests

Everyone knows that the landscape of journalism is shifting, and with that the demographics of journalism are changing dramatically. More and more of the critical events and issues of our times are being covered by freelancers, independent journalists from small news organizations, nonprofit media, students and citizen reporters who have little or no safety net, no legal backing, no big institution supporting them.

Instead, those journalists depend on us – all of us.

Increasingly, those of us who care about the future of journalism have to think of ourselves as allies to journalists and citizen reporters alike who are sticking their necks out into this new media environment and trying to do journalism that matters. Rebecca Rosen at The Atlantic notes that “Journalists who work for big institutions will continue to have better protections — not because of laws that protect them but because of the legal power their companies can buy. For everyone else, we should hope that we haven’t legislated non-journalists out of the protections the First Amendment seeks.”

She is right, but it is not enough to simply hope. We can no longer take the First Amendment for granted, assuming someone else is watching out for it. We each have a role to play in defending the First Amendment, and that role is more critical than ever.

I started tracking journalist arrests at Occupy protests on October 1st when Natasha Lennard, a freelancer working for the New York Times, Kristen Gwynne, a reporter with AlterNet.org and Stephanie Keith a freelance photographer were arrested while trying to cover Occupy Wall Street’s march across the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time I wrote that this tracking effort “began mainly as attempt to bear witness, to understand if what I was seeing was an isolated few incidents, or a larger pattern.” Now, nine months later, more than 90 people have been arrested or detained while trying to cover Occupy protests in 13 cities around the country, and innumerable others have faced intimidation and press suppression.

In the past, these issues were hashed out in the courts or in meetings between police, press freedom groups and lawyers for newsrooms. Those tactics are still critical, but they are no longer sufficient because even as those meetings achieve measurable wins, the arrests continue and sometimes police departments even try to rewrite history. As the institutions that traditionally embodied press freedom shift and change, and as more and more of our speech moves online, we need to develop new tactics to defend press freedom in our communities. Those efforts have to start at the grassroots level. Just as news organizations are coming to understand the need to deeply engage their communities, community members must understand the need to deeply engage in media policy.

I have worked hard to make sure the story of each individual journalist who has been arrested is documented and gets out there. At Free Press we helped 40,000 people deliver petitions to the US Conference of Mayors demanding they protect press freedom in their cities and lodged phone calls to mayors in the cities where arrests already happened. We worked with digital rights and press freedom groups to call on the Justice Department to codify all people’s right to record, and they have taken steps in the right direction. And I have spent hours on the phone and over email sharing resources with arrested journalists, connecting them to each other and letting them know their communities support them. Indeed, 16,000 Free Press members sent messages of support to the journalists who had been arrested.

We Are All in This Together

The First Amendment is not just for journalists. As one judge noted recently, “changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw,” as such “the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.” This spring, the Justice Department reinforced that idea, calling on police departments to “affirmatively set forth the First Amendment right to record police activity” for all people.

People are often quick to act when they feel their own rights being infringed upon, but not always so swift in the face of incursions on others’ rights. Increasingly we need to understand that the rights of journalists are our rights too. Whether we are sharing stories on Facebook, commenting on blog posts, posting videos to YouTube or working for a news organization we are all participants in the media now.

To be a media ally today is to not only support the media you depend on but also to fight for your own rights. We need to mobilize a new generation of press freedom advocates who can help defend the First Amendment in their cities using grassroots organizing, online activism and creative collaborations with media makers and activists. But we need not wait for that new generation to emerge – it is us.

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