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?
Jesse Norman, William Paterson University, submitted this month’s essay. Additional essays will be posted each month throughout 2020.
History has a tendency to repeat itself. Something that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago may seem insignificant until a similar subject comes up again in today’s time. The ability of history to repeat itself and be looked back on is what makes the history of journalism ethics so important. Without journalism ethics, sources would be ousted, anything could be printed, and any legitimacy of the press would be void.
Matthew Lyon was a former indentured servant who eventually worked his way up to a seat in congress in 1797 under the new Republican Party. Lyon was a very big supporter of the right to write and speak without the fear of oppression from the government. Lyon’s beliefs and outspoken nature were quickly a problem when President John Adams signed into effect the Alien and Sedition acts of 1798. The Alien and Sedition Acts made it so citizens could not criticize the United State government in any sense as John Adams and Federalists feared a war with France and the country turning on their government. Lyon thought that he would be the first tried and convicted under these new acts, but that did not stop him from speaking his truth.
Despite being put on trial, Lyon continued to criticize President Adams and his government for the Alien and Sedition acts that he viewed as unconstitutional. Matthew Lyon’s ethics of fighting for what he thought was right is something every journalist should stand for. Lyon was placed on an unfair trial with no lawyers and a Federalist judge and jury; he had absolutely no chance of being found not guilty. With everything stacked against him, Lyon still continued to fight for his right to print and say what he wanted.
The defense that Lyon puts up is quite remarkable for the entire courtroom being against him. He goes down swinging claiming that the Alien and Sedition acts were unconstitutional and therefore he could not be guilty. The ethics of Lyon and his counterparts to hold throughout the trial is incredible for journalists no matter what time period it occurred in. Matthew Lyon was not a good person; he assaulted multiple congressmen and was incredibly stubborn with his beliefs. However, you cannot question how much Lyon meant to the foundation of ethics in journalism.