News Orgs Aren’t the Defenders of the First Amendment They Once Were

A new Knight Foundation report explains why.

The introduction to the the Knight Foundation’s new report on the state of news organizations’ efforts to defend and preserve First Amendment protections is a history lesson in brief:

In the 20th century, news organizations played a major role in protecting the press and speech freedoms enshrined by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They went to the nation’s highest courts to fight for government documents, report fully on public figures, fight censorship and protect confidential sources. Their efforts helped to shape American laws on libel, privacy, prior restraint and many other legal principles. In the latter half of the 20th century, daily newspapers in particular paid hefty legal bills to fight for—and in some cases expand—speech and press rights.

That’s not the story these days, finds the report, based on a survey completed by 66 editors from print and digital orgs. The survey, conducted in partnership with the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Media Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press included questions on whether an org has filed a First Amendment-related lawsuit during the past two years, how the frequency compares to the previous decade and how editors feel about the state of case law regarding the first amendment, especially around digital issues.

Around the question of frequency of lawsuits, the study found that news orgs are more reluctant to go to court, mainly because of the expense, and we all know how precarious the financial outlook of the industry at large is these days.

But there is another, more disheartening issue at play, one whose implications extend past the courtroom:

In response to open-ended questions, some editors mentioned a second factor—the news organization’s mission. They cited declining “watchdog journalism” as a reason for fewer First Amendment legal challenges. With less accountability journalism, one editor said, comes “less investigative work, which is often the type of reporting that results in legal fights over records and access.” In fact, news organizations may be increasingly pursuing stories that are less likely to result in legal issues.

Read the full report here.