Student essay: Ashley Sawyer

In the fall of 2019, 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?

Ashley Sawyer, William Paterson University, submitted this month’s essay. Additional essays will be posted each month throughout 2020.

Journalism ethics is all about journalists publishing what the public wants and needs to hear, despite there being possible consequences. Throughout history, people have used freedom of speech to defend their morals and the morals of others. Matthew Lyon, a United States Representative and printer, fought for freedom of speech against the Alien and Sedition Acts. Civil rights leader and publisher T. Thomas Fortune used his newspaper The New York Age to protest the harsh punishments African Americans were receiving. When the Pentagon Papers reached journalists, the newspapers involved knew the public had the right to know what was happening inside of the government despite the backlash the government would receive. The history of journalism ethics is important because it shaped the way freedom of speech, press, and people is today.

Without Matthew Lyon’s ethics leading him to become an advocate for freedom of speech against the Alien and Sedition Acts, journalists today would not have freedom of speech and would be jailed for their own opinions. According to “Resisting Tyranny” by John Crossley Morgan and Richard Lyon Morgan, Lyon was arrested for publishing and writing words against the President at the time, John Adams. During Lyon’s trial, he fought that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated the right to freedom of speech and that the government was trying to restrict the words of the citizens. Despite being in jail and losing the trial, Lyon was re-elected as the representative for Vermont and continued to fight for freedom of speech for all.

T. Thomas Fortune’s ethics gave courage to African Americans to use their freedom of speech. Without him, history would not have led up to the modern-day civil rights movement known as “Black Lives Matter” and built the equality that we have now. According to a “T. Thomas Fortune Foundation” article by Lynn Humphrey, Fortune was focused on getting equal rights for all African Americans by publishing about the discrimination and abuse they received. These opinions were not very popular with the white supremacists, and African American newspapers often dealt with extreme abuse themselves. He continued to lead more African American newspapers and organizations, giving journalists more courage.

Daniel Ellsberg and the newspapers involved in releasing the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War to the public felt it was ethically right to inform the country of what the government was hiding. Without this moment in history, we would have less freedom of the press. According to “Behind the Race to Publish the Top-Secret Pentagon Papers” by Niraj Chokshi, The New York Times was temporarily restrained by the government from publishing any other information from the Pentagon Papers. Despite other newspapers being involved, The Washington Post and The New York Times went to court and won. This was a big landmark in history that would help prevent other instances of press censorship in the future.

If not for the history of journalism ethics, press today would run very differently. Matthew Lyon fought against the regulation of media and now we have freedom of speech. The New York Times and The Washington Post both helped get rid of the censorship of newspapers, and today more news against the President and the government is being published without being restrained. T. Thomas Fortune changed media for African Americans by giving them a platform to express the racism they received, giving society today bigger organizations for African American equality such as the “Black Lives Matter” movement. These moments in history have benefited society with better opportunities for freedom to speak their minds.


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