By Shirley Carswell
On my third day at the Dow Jones News Fund, where our mission is to encourage smart young people to pursue journalism careers, an ugly mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in an attempted coup. On that tragic day, courageous journalists, armed only with the facts, illustrated the power of a free press in protecting our democracy and, in the process, became one of our best recruiting tools. The shocking events of Jan. 6 drove home for me the urgency of propagating not just a free press, but a strong one, staffed with brave and committed journalists in search of the truth.
The press corps rose to the occasion that day, with journalists on the scene providing gripping
eyewitness accounts of the terror and others offering expert analysis and historical insights as the extent of the violent uprising became clearer. It was the news media that provided constant updates, as reporters worked their sources to uncover new details and connect the dots in the tense days that followed while the federal government and law enforcement officials were slow to brief a nervous public.
That kind of all-hands-on-deck, rapid-fire reporting in a crisis is the essence of journalism, providing the public with the unvarnished facts, the truth, or as much as we know at the time. To follow the story without fear of persecution or prosecution, to provide citizens with the information they need to make wise decisions about their leaders and government, to shine a light on injustice–those are the things that define a free press, a hallmark of our democracy. We need that now, more than ever.
While this ongoing story–arguably the most important one of our lifetime– showcases the power of good journalism, it also reveals a little-discussed but ever-present danger. Truth-telling is a threat to those who peddle lies. The risk to journalists in the U.S. typically has not been as great as for those in other countries. But it’s been a rough four years. President Trump’s constant lies and vicious verbal attacks on reporters has further eroded an already waning trust in the media. One insurrectionist, apparently buying into Trump’s declaration that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” scrawled “Murder the Media” on a door at the Capitol. Others roughed up journalists caught up in the crowd outside, destroying their equipment. Those reporters must have been terrified, but they did not let fear stop them from getting the story.
Journalism has never been a career for the faint of heart, and that’s especially true in these perilous days. But it is an exciting and fulfilling one for those who love a challenge, the challenge of racing against the clock and the competition–and sometimes a mob–to tell stories that matter. At DJNF, we’re on a mission to find those kind of young people. The events of last week show that there’s little time to spare. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”
Shirley Carswell is the executive director of the Dow Jones News Fund and an alumna of the Fund’s editing program. This column appeared in the January 2021 newsletter, click here to join the mailing list.