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Musings: Why does the U.S. rank 43 in press freedom?

By Jane Hagl & Lauren AguirreMay 3, 2017

Newspaper stand
Newspaper stand

J: Reporters without Borders released their ranking of countries on press freedom. The United States ranked 43, sandwiched in between two tiny countries Burkina Faso and Comoros.

L: This might be surprising to the average American, given that the U.S. is often labeled as the leader of the free world. But these rankings aren’t just based on jailing journalists - although that is a factor. The White House has rolled back access to the press for several administrations.


The press should be free to report on what’s going on, but often that message gets muddled and confused with the 24-hour news cycle, pundits and commentators. 

J: Well if journalists are being arrested for covering protests around the country and then facing criminal charges, it’s easy to understand the rankings. And plus the previous administration set the record for prosecuting the most government whistleblowers.

L: And now we have a president who declared the media as the enemy of the people. Press freedom isn't looking too good lately.

J: Yeah, but he says a lot of things. Unlike other countries where journalists are killed and imprisoned for merely doing their job, the journalist climate here differs. Most of the citizens tend to view the media in a negative light because of the quality and integrity of the work from cable news and major news sites and rightly so. But— being imprisoned for covering protest is concerning since people ought to know why people are protesting, how it affects them and if it’s a matter that they should be concerned about.

RSF 2017 Map
RSF 2017

L: Local journalists and reporters at big outlets are doing their jobs. I feel like the big divide is in cable news and commentators. The press should be free to report on what’s going on, but often that message gets muddled and confused with the 24-hour news cycle, pundits and commentators.

J: Cable news does make it hard to be more sympathetic to reporters and journalists who are doing their job. I think people tend to think of cable news when they think of journalists rather than their local education reporter. I wonder if Woodward, Bernstein, and DeepThroat could exist in the current journalistic climate.

L: Some people might not think restricting press freedom in small ways isn't that bad. But it still is a problem. The reason press freedom matters is to keep the public informed and provide yet another check on elected officials. And in the current media climate, those ideas tend to get lost. Woodward and Bernstein are a classic example of this principle and I don't think there has been a report quite as big as theirs since.
J: Norway was ranked number 1 not just because there’s not violence toward journalists, but because there’s also limits on how much media corporations own and there is a focus on the importance of press freedom and the spread of ideas and facts. It is more than just not having a negative impact, but being proactive in protecting free press, and more broadly the first amendment.