Dave Helling

See something, tell others about it. Journalists’ job is just that simple, and important

Donald Trump’s war on the press shouldn’t obscure journalism’s job:  See something.  Tell others what you saw.
Donald Trump’s war on the press shouldn’t obscure journalism’s job: See something. Tell others what you saw. AP

Newspapers across the country, including this one, wrote editorials Thursday about the free press in the era of President Donald Trump.

Let’s hope the editorials and columns prompt lots of people to think about reporting and public policy and our communities and the Constitution.

The First Amendment is astonishingly powerful. Part of its strength comes from its purpose, which protects the right to speak and think freely. That protection is rare in human history.

But the amendment is powerful because of its simplicity, too. Congress is forbidden from restricting free speech or a free press. There are no qualifications or exceptions. No law means no law. Americans get that.

It doesn’t work that way in practice, of course. Lawmakers pass laws restricting free speech and the free press all the time — libel, slander, false advertising and incitement to violence are all restricted. Every day in this country someone argues over the real meaning of free speech.

Broadly, though, Americans accept the concept of free speech and a free press and guard it fiercely. Here’s why: Its fundamental promise doesn’t apply just to politicians, reporters, pundits, judges or the government.

It applies, equally, to everyone. Got something to say? Grab a street corner. Get out a piece of paper and a pen.

I often speak to civic groups and classrooms, and many audience members are surprised when I tell them reporters’ rights are the same as the public’s.

Reporters aren’t licensed or regulated. Some are trained, others learn on the job. We have no subpoena power. People lie to reporters without legal penalty.

Sometimes we’re given special access to public figures and events, as a convenience to us and to the public, but providing reporters special access is not guaranteed by the Constitution. The Freedom of Information Act is available to everyone.

That isn’t a flaw; it’s a strength. Reporters are citizens: no more and no less. We see something — a fire, a speech, a rally — then tell our neighbors about it. It’s that simple, and that powerful.

For decades, Americans have supported that approach with their eyes, ears and bank accounts. New technology has changed that equation slightly, as you probably know.

It’s now easier for anyone to speak, or report, about events they see, a change that has put enormous pressure on professional reporting. While that’s regrettable, it’s also an exercise of the First Amendment.

At the same time, the value of professional reporting hasn’t diminished. In fact, it’s more important than ever when Americans face a bewildering array of quasi-news and information options. Journalists must keep this in mind.

Trump has exploited technology changes for his own political purposes. That’s regrettable, too. But journalists risk much if we respond by abandoning our roles as observers to join the noise.

Politicians have attacked journalists forever, and for the same reason: They don’t like it when reporters see something and tell others about it.

Yet that remains the job. It’s as simple, and as powerful, as that.