In the fall, Journalism History conducted an undergraduate student essay contest. Students answered the question that our podcast hosts ask at the end of every episode: Why does journalism history matter?
Brandi Davis, William Paterson University, submitted the third-place essay. Additional essays will be posted each month throughout 2020.
The job of a journalist is to provide the public with factual information while remaining completely unbiased. During President Donald Trump’s presidency, he has declared war on journalists everywhere for simply doing their jobs. Even after the countless times that he’s referred to the media as “fake news”, journalists have continued to maintain their code of ethics and resolve to provide fair and authentic reporting. It is important for journalists to know about the history of journalism ethics so that they can become aware of past struggles and of the undeniable protection that they’ve received under the First Amendment.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, religion, and the press. In regards to journalism, the government cannot stop journalists from reporting the truth. The government has a limited amount of control over what the press can or cannot write. People have the right to stay informed or up to date about the circumstances surrounding our nation’s capital. If citizens of America don’t stay informed about those in powerful positions, we as journalists have utterly failed at our duty to serve the public. This being said, our failure would open a gateway to our national leaders possibly scheming or acting in a manner that would not benefit American citizens. Therefore, these individuals would not be held accountable for their actions and would continue to persevere with their secret initiatives. The United States is a democratic country where those who live in it have a right to decide how they would wish to be governed and express their opinions freely on political matters.
This was once an issue the nation was facing during the earlier days of the United States when the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed. These laws violated the First Amendment and were used as a tool to silence those in opposition of the governmental authority at the time. They were aimed at the enemies of President John Adams and the Federalist Party. These acts didn’t last long and ended in 1801. They were clearly found to be unconstitutional, but several people did face the consequences of going against these laws. One of the most well known men to do so was Matthew Lyon.
Matthew Lyon was very aware that writing or publishing anything that was negative about the president or the Federalist Party beliefs was scandalous and could get him sent to prison. He decided to take the risk anyway. He spent four months in prison because he wasn’t given a fair trial. Deep down he knew he had an obligation to seek the truth and report it to the people, no matter the consequences he may have been forced to face for his actions. He followed two of the guidelines in the code of ethics that true journalists must follow which are reporting truthfully and taking responsibility for one’s work.
The courses of action Matthew Lyon took centuries ago were for the sake of the American democracy. “Democracy relies on its citizens having enough information to make good decisions and holding those elected accountable.” He and many others like him have laid the foundation of what it means to be a journalist and a truth seeker, even if drastic or illegal measures have to be taken for it to be revealed. People like him have made the journalistic writing we have now or had in the past possible. We must remember our history of journalism ethics in order to continue writing ethical stories and to maintain a good reputation among the public.