"Democracy Dies in Darkness" is the slogan of the Washington Post, first adopted in 2017. But today we may amend that to read journalism dies in a pandemic. Newspapers are linked to our Democracy, and have evolved with it. From partisan vehicles in the 19th century, to industrial machines in the early 20th century, to bastions of the truth in the mid-20th century back to corporate tools again in the 21st century.
But, already locked in a steep decline - Covid-19 has pushed so many of the nation’s and our state’s news outlets to the edge. Many have stopped printing, switching to digital only. Others have laid off staffers, including reporters, as adverting plummets. And, many are starting to fold. That comes on top of the near 2,000 US papers that ceased publication over the past decade.
So, what does a nation look like without journalism? Look no farther than authoritarian or failed states where the media is controlled, or non-existent. In other cases, the result is political abuses, corruption and crimes, with no independent outlets to report on them. Not just on the national level, but on a local level too.
This tragedy comes with a cost. The United States, one of the first modern democratic states in the world, is now ranked 45th nationally for free press. Ghana, Jamaica, Burkina Faso and Cyprus all rank ahead of the US. And the US ranking has dropped 2 places in 2020 from the year before.
American journalism is the canary in the coal mine for our republic. Without legitimate media sources, the truth becomes a subject of interpretation. Fake news replaces real news, and authoritarianism and lies become acceptable.
But, time is not up yet. We can still act to save a treasured institution. Start by not canceling your subscriptions to magazines and newspapers. Donate, support and advertise in them. Look for the seal of real reporting when you browse online. Question the source of news you see posted to social media — and don’t share or like news from suspicious sources. Respect and share news from the wires, like the Associated Press. And most of all, even though this whole Covid-19 is awful, don’t hide under your bed, but rather seek out the truth.
When the United Nations declared May 3 to be World Press Freedom Day, they hoped to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of the press and remind governments of their duty. But today the struggle is one of survival; not simply for a free press, but of the freedoms that it guarantees.