One thing should not change after Sept. 11: nation's love of liberty

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2001

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, almost everyone is rethinking their position on almost everything.

And that includes the role and performance of the news media.

A poll released late last month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows the American public's attitude toward the media is significantly more positive than before Sept. 11.

"Almost two-thirds now say those in the news business stand up for America and help protect democracy. ... These are the highest levels on those measures in the center's 15 years of polling on the news industry. Fewer than half felt that way before the attacks," according to an Associated Press story about the survey.

The survey seems to indicate Americans now perceive journalists as more human than they did before the terrorist attacks, with the public now speaking more favorably of the press's professionalism, morality, patriotism and compassion.

"Past surveys have shown public opinion about journalists' honesty and ethical standards were at the lower end of the scale of occupations, along with politicians, lawyers and insurance salesmen. About one in five were likely to give high marks for ethics and honesty to those occupations in a Gallup poll taken a year ago," reported the AP.

It's particularly interesting to note that prior to the attacks less than a fourth of those surveyed said the press cared about the people they report on. It was the lowest rating in the survey. Today, however, that figure has doubled to 47 percent who believe the press does care. The most dramatic shift came in the perceptions of Americans under the age of 30 -- only 22 percent of whom believed the press cared prior to the attacks. Today, more than half -- 52 percent -- say they believe the press does care.

There's a good explanation of the turn-around: the public's increased desire for information about the attacks and security issues related to the attacks. Those who have followed the news most closely since the terrorist attacks tend to have more favorable opinions of news organizations than those with lower levels of interest in the news. Those who were more worried about personal attacks also gave the media a better grade.

There's no doubt the attacks have increased attention to the news, with more than two-thirds of those surveyed saying they are now more interested in the news than they were before Sept. 11.

That's a notable finding for one important reason: An informed citizenry is the key ingredient to a strong democracy. When people don't take their responsibility to stay informed seriously, they endanger their liberty because they don't have a clue what's happening. They aren't aware their rights may even be in jeopardy. They depend on other people to look after them. The strength of this country lies not only in personal liberty but also individual responsibility. The attacks have served as a reminder that our rights and responsibilities go hand in hand.

The good news of the poll, however, is not without some bad news for the press. Half of those polled said the press tries to cover up mistakes rather than admit them.

A majority of those polled -- 53 percent -- also said it's more important for the government to be able to censor stories it thinks threaten national security than for reporters to be allowed to report stories they think are in the national interest.

Yet, freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment, along with the freedoms of speech, religion, petition and assembly.

The results of a 1999 survey by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University showed 65 percent of those polled said newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of a story. That was down from 80 percent in the 1997 survey.

Which brings us to the question: Do we really want to sacrifice freedom for security?

While the press doesn't always do the right thing, we wonder how the government watchdog can do its job better if the government has the final say on whether a story is printed.

Thomas Jefferson captured the importance of a free press in a letter he wrote in 1787: "...(W)ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Although it's been said that everything has changed since Sept. 11, Americans should continue to stay abreast of the news to ensure one constant: There will be no chipping away at the freedoms that have made this nation the envy of liberty-loving people everywhere.

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