Seigenthaler sets high bar for journalists

“Absence of accountability leads to an absence of credibility,” said John Seigenthaler Thursday evening at the First Amendment Celebration hosted by St. Louis and Gateway Journalism Review supporters. Seigenthaler, a longtime advocate and activis

t for free speech, stressed the importance of traditional journalism values in the digital age.

“Defending the First Amendment is more than an intellectual exercise for John Seigenthaler,” said Bill McClellan, master of ceremonies, as he reviewed Seigenthaler’s many professional accomplishments. The list includes being administrative aide to Robert Kennedy in the Justice Department and one of the founding editors of USA Today, and advocating free speech through the Freedom Forum.

“ ‘Flash and trash’ journalism is found online too often today,” Seigenthaler said. “The state of the news industry has suffered. Balance, accuracy and depth are often lost in online news.”

While he said he still enjoys holding a newspaper, flipping through pages and reading jumps, Seigenthaler acknowledged the future of news is online. With this digital delivery, though, there are serious First Amendment implications, he said.

“Today’s extraordinary technology allows information in this ‘e-world’ to be shared instantaneously,” he said. “With just a few keystrokes, one can connect and influence people halfway around the world. This has removed language barriers and made news available to everyone.”

But with this great delivery system comes many challenges. Providing accurate information is a struggle for many online news sources, Seigenthaler said.

Rather than congressional or government action, Seigenthaler said it is up to citizens to demand reliable online news. Editors and journalists also need to be engaged in ensuring what is published online is just as reliable as what is published in print or broadcast on network news.

“Internet news can be a flashpoint of problems if journalistic values are not upheld,” Seigenthaler said. He provided an account of the situation in which he was the victim of fraudulent information being published online via the website Wikipedia.

He told the crowd of nearly 200 there is a double standard between online media and traditional media. He cited Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as a source for this. Under this provision, Internet Service Providers are not held to the same level of accountability as print and broadcaster media.

Seigenthaler said he does not think Section 230 should be repealed. He does not want government to regulate the press. Rather, he said, citizens and journalists should hold media accountable.

Two young journalists in the audience were Antonia Akrap and Jane Manwarring from Kirkwood, Mo. Both are on staff of their high school newspaper, the Kirkwood Call.

“It is nice to hear such insight into the professional world of journalism,” Akrap said. “It is wonderful to hear from him [Seigenthaler] and to know how involved he was in history from a journalist’s point of view.”

“As journalists in the digital age, we have to get used to the idea that what we do will be online,” Manwarring added. “Everything we do, from design to articles, will go online. Tonight has helped us to think about issues related to using the Web for journalism.”

Akrap and Manwarring, both Gateway Media Literacy Partner, Charles Klotzer Media Literacy award winners, were part of a group of 16 students attending the event.

“Taking time to pay tribute to people who have worked with the Journalism Reviews over the past 40 years is important,” Seigenthaler said. “We need independent review of the news media, like what the Journalism Review provides.”

Seigenthaler said it is tempting to let unreliable and inaccurate journalism pass by “let(ting) the buck pass.” But he encouraged the audience to be involved, and to exercise their citizens’ right to speak out when they find false information in the media.

In the age of the Internet “everyone can be a pamphleteer,” Seigenthaler said. “And we all need to step up and protect free speech.”

For more information about John Seigenthaler, please see a recent article by Dale Singer.

Publisher’s note: The staff of Gateway Journalism Review sincerely thanks everyone who supported the First Amendment Celebration. Special thanks go to Mr. Seigenthaler for his thoughtful remarks; Bill McClellan, our master of ceremonies; and the entire event-planning board.

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