First Person

Journalism needs a new paradigm for its own protection

March 7, 2023
President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador (left) with Donald Trump in 2019. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Carlos Dada can’t go home to El Salvador. The editor of the groundbreaking digital website El Faro, which he cofounded in 1998, has been living in exile for years because of the threat of violence and legal persecution. But his news organization is confronting another existential challenge: competing for visibility and relevance with El Salvador’s charismatic and increasingly authoritarian president, Nayib Bukele. It’s a battle that Dada says he is losing.

El Faro was the first Salvadoran media outlet born in democracy,” Dada noted in a speech last September at Columbia University, where he accepted an award from the International Press Institute. “Now democracy is almost completely gone, and yet, thanks to an innovative, modern, and greased propaganda machine, Mr. Bukele is the Latin American president with the highest popular support, which raises a paradox: the communities we serve don’t support us.”

Around the world—including in the United States—media organizations are facing threats that go far beyond the usual press freedom concerns. The threats come from national political leaders like Bukele who are using social media to outcompete outlets in the information space and simultaneously undermine trust and credibility. The threats come from government influence operations that combine traditional propaganda with orchestrated harassment campaigns. They come from the tech platforms whose content moderation policies, engineered for engagement, reward outrage, not news. They come from lawfare, systematic legal harassment perpetrated by governments and private actors, often working together. They come from new business models that even when successful are difficult to scale. 

During my quarter century at the Committee to Protect Journalists, I struggled to find ways to address these threats within the existing human rights model, grounded in international law and based on the defense of individual rights. As I argued in a recent white paper published by the Tow Center on Digital Journalism, the best way to meet the array of challenges independent media face in the US and around the world is to combine press freedom and public interest, developing new arguments and strategies linked to the social value of independent journalism. Journalism protection represents an overarching new framework for defending both journalists and journalism as an institution. 

Censorship, repression, and legal persecution of media outlets are all violations of international law, and traditional name-and-shame strategies often remain the best response. But when political leaders like Bukele use social media support to rally the public against a publication and undermine trust, the calculus is more complex. After all, presidents have expressive rights, even when they lie. Supporting independent media against malicious spin may require investments in public education and media literacy campaigns, support for fact-checking organizations, and engagement with the platforms on content moderation policies. 

I saw the need for new thinking and new approaches as I traveled to conferences and met with journalists in my first few weeks in my new role, as the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Newmark Journalism School. On February 15, I attended the Black Twitter Summit at the Newmark School, in which a group of scholars, activists, and journalists explored the ways in which Black social media users were facing not only trolling and harassment but a kind of racial bias baked into the algorithms. 

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I saw it again when I attended the Knight Media Forum in Miami, where editors from the nonprofit media outlets that have led the national revitalization of local news described the challenge of gaining access to local city officials who had gone a generation without having to answer a tough question from a journalist. They do not like suddenly being held accountable, and are often hostile and unavailable, several editors told me. 

I saw this a third time when I attended a conference on the journalist-fixer relationship at the University of British Columbia. Journalists and editors flew in from around the world to discuss a huge challenge at the heart of global newsgathering—the local journalists and producers who support international correspondents in the field say they are often marginalized, underpaid, and at risk, according to a study carried out by the Global Reporting Centre.

None of these issues—so central to the future of journalism—can be resolved through rights-based advocacy alone. Instead, they must be addressed through changes in policy, within the industry, from the tech platforms, via education, and through reforms to laws and regulations. The arguments in favor of such changes should be grounded in the social value and contribution of journalism, particularly public interest journalism, as well as individual rights. This is the essence of journalism protection. 

Journalism protection also encompasses the challenges that individual journalists face in covering the news in an increasingly hostile environment—such as combating online harassment and confronting trauma. The scale and complexity of these problems makes clear that there are no easy solutions. But journalism protection represents a different way of talking and thinking about the challenges, building coalitions, and identifying the strategies that will improve the environment for both individual journalists and journalism as an institution in the United States and around the world. 

As for Carlos Dada and El Faro, when I met with him recently during a visit to New York he told me he and his team are digging in for a long fight. He is fortunate to have the support of the Knight First Amendment Institute, which is suing the NSO group, the makers of Pegasus, for allegedly implanting spyware on the phones of El Faro journalists. But even if they prevail in the courts, Dada acknowledges the ultimate battle that he and El Faro must win is for the hearts and minds of the Salvadoran public. 

El Faro’s struggle is the struggle of every media organization, for both safety and relevance. It requires combining traditional press freedom defense strategies with new approaches grounded in journalism’s public interest role. Journalism protection is the banner that unites these aims.

Joel Simon is the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.