Am I free to report, officer?

Journalism is the only profession blatantly mentioned in and protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

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The governing document guarantees freedom of the press, but journalistic freedom in the United States is declining.

According to Reporters Without Boarders, press freedom dropped globally in 2014. You can see in the map below how freedom of the press varies among nations, with darker colors indicating less freedom.

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The United States ranked 46th, dropping 14 places in one year. It seemed strange that a nation that emphasizes this freedom so heavily should fall so low on the list.

Voice of America (VOA) said this ranking was due to the arrest of 24 journalists covering the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Reporters were in the center of the action in Ferguson putting them at risk. Many were involved in the violence of the protests and experienced brutality both by protesters and police.

CNN did a report on the arrests explaining what happened and reactions from those journalist affected. 

Comments on the VOA and CNN reports said that these journalists were breaking the law by being out after curfew and in areas that were not designated for journalists. (During the more violent events the press was given a location where there were told they’d be safe. Leaving the “press pin,” according to authorities, would put you in the line of fire.) Commenters said journalists were using the “reporter card” to do things they knew were wrong.

So at what point do journalists become civilians? And when does freedom of the press become inapplicable?

I do not believe that simply being a member of the press gives you free reign. But it’s a fine line. In the case of the Ferguson protests, as long as journalists were actively attempting to report or get a story, they should not be subject to arrests (and no person, reporter or civilian, should be subject to brutality). But when the reporter hat is off, breaking the law is unacceptable.

Nevertheless, the press must be protected. In order to report objective and thorough stories a certain level of freedom must exist.

And while I am concerned that the United States has fallen to a lower position on the press freedom list, I know that the conversation that these arrests sparked can only help journalistic freedom grow.

In the age of a growing mass media when one door closes, 100 windows open.

“For every reporter they arrest, every image they block, every citizen they censor, another will still write, photograph and speak.” -David Boardman, president, The American Society of News Editors


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