A photograph taken at a Trump rally has been making the rounds on social media recently. It shows a man wearing a t-shirt that reads: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” It is a direct reference to lynching, and it should piss you off.
Reporters, of course, should be angry that someone is, quite literally, threatening to kill them. Anyone with an ounce of human decency should be angry that someone is making light of a tactic that claimed thousands of lives and was used to terrify African Americans for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, and even into the present day.
And, given that this t-shirt was worn to a political rally, it’s important to note that any attempts to intimidate reporters are also attempts to undermine democracy. It’s that simple.
I’ve written much of this before, but it bears repeating: most of us who are reading this live under a form of representative government. We, the citizens, cast votes for political representatives who, in turn, are responsible for making decisions on our behalf. In order for this system to work, citizens need to be informed about the world we live in and about the decisions our respective governments have made to this point. We also need to know where various political candidates stand on these issues.
Without good journalism, we would be informed about none of these things – and may instead be misinformed about all of them.
Because, here’s the thing, journalism is not about simply repeating what political candidates say. A good reporter is checking the facts behind the statements. A good reporter is placing news into context, which helps us understand what we’re reading. Is what a candidate saying actually true? Can it be verified? Is it consistent with the candidate’s previous positions; with the candidate’s voting record; with the candidate’s business history? If a candidate has changed his or her position, what was the explanation for that? Were there mitigating circumstances? If a candidate voted against something they said they supported, what was the context – was it part of an enormous piece of legislation that also included lots of language that the candidate opposed?
Reporters should be sifting and analyzing all of this information because it’s their job. And it’s one of the most important jobs in the world. Why? Because most people – including me – do not have the time, skills or resources to do that work. You have to talk to sources. You have to read long, tedious government reports. You have to pore through reams of data you dug up using Freedom of Information Act requests. You have to bust your ass for hours and hours, determining which sources of information are reliable and which claims can be verified.
A few sample questions that a reporter has to answer on a daily basis: Does the information come from a trustworthy source? Could it be verified by other sources? Why is it important? Who says it is important? Who is it important to? Why are you telling me about this now? How did this happen? What might happen next?
And all of that is just for one story. Good luck trying to do that on your own for every topic that’s relevant in an election.
While we’re at it, let’s make clear that there is no conspiracy of journalists. Reporters compete with each other to break news stories. Many reporters got into the business because they believe in the free exchange of ideas, because they want to speak truth to power, or because they think keeping the public informed is the surest way to prevent tyranny and protect the least powerful. (These are all, arguably, variations of the same thing.)
The job description is, often literally, to find out what powerful people are trying to keep secret and tell the world about it. In short, this is the last group of people on Earth that you could convince to engage in a secretive cabal.
Does this mean that every news story is rock solid? No, of course not. All reporters are humans, and humans are highly variable. Some news stories, or even news outlets, can be flawed. But it does mean that, if you read work from multiple news outlets with a critical eye, you can get a fairly clear idea of what’s going on. Without good reporters, you’d have to rely solely on what candidates tell you themselves – which essentially means that the candidate with the deepest pockets would always win.
As I write this, the sun hasn’t come up yet on Election Day 2016 in the United States. I don’t know who the next president of the United States will be. But I do know that this election has highlighted the importance of good journalism, the value of critical thinkers in the newsroom, and the need for more reporters.
So, if you really want to perform an act of patriotism, go vote – and then subscribe to a newspaper. Subscribe to one online. Subscribe to a magazine (or two). Journalism needs support if it’s going to thrive. And we need journalism.