National Press Club

Press Freedom experts: Trump's harsh tone toward media takes toll at home, abroad

May 4, 2017 | By Justin Duckham | justin@talkmedianews.com

Participants in a National Press Club Panel on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, included (l-r) Sharon Moshavi, ICFJ, Jennifer Hyman, International Women's Forum, Jeff Ballou, National Press Club President, Delphine Halgand, Reporters Without Borders, Sherif Mansour, Committee to Protect Journalists, John Yearwood, International Press Institute.

Participants in a National Press Club Panel on World Press Freedom Day, May 3, included (l-r) Sharon Moshavi, ICFJ, Jennifer Hyman, International Women's Forum, Jeff Ballou, National Press Club President, Delphine Halgand, Reporters Without Borders, Sherif Mansour, Committee to Protect Journalists, John Yearwood, International Press Institute.

On the first World Press Freedom Day under President Donald J. Trump, media advocates gathered at the National Press Club May 3 to warn that the president’s harsh rhetoric toward the press is taking its toll both at home and abroad.

Speaking on the first of three panels marking the day, Delphine Halgand, the U.S. director of Reporters Without Borders, pointed to the organization’s annual press freedom index released last week showing that the United States has fallen two places to become 43rd on the list of countries that support a free press.

The United States, however, was not the only country that saw their standing slide.

“Canada also has a deterioration, the U.K. has seen a deterioration,” Hagland said. “What we are seeing in the U.S., we are seeing really concerning trends in leading democracies as well.”

Trump spent a good portion of the campaign and his first 100 days in office attacking the press, labeling outlets that published stories he disagreed with as “fake news” and going so far as to call the media the “enemy of the American people.”

The aggressive language has left many organizations fearing for reporters’ safety.

"We have to combat as best we can what many of our members are seeing at the local level which is an increased vitriol against reporters on the street just doing their job,” said Dan Shelley, president of the Radio Television Digital News Association, who added that this has ranged from angry Facebook comments to physical altercations.

Perhaps even more troubling is a tendency for foreign leaders who already have a poor relationship with the press to start adopting Trump’s behavior.

“The issue of ‘fake news,’ something that the current president has used regularly on Twitter, publicly, is now being repeated by some democratic and non democratic governments,” said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, citing leaders in China, Russia, Syria and Turkey.

“All those people are using the same line and aligning themselves with the current administration,” Mansour added.

John Yearwood, the executive board chairman of the International Press Institute (IPI), noted that the consequences of this rhetoric have already been seen in Turkey.

“IPI has done studies that looked at Turkey and what happens when [Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] and some of his supporters start bashing the media. You really start seeing that members of the media are physically attacked after,” Yearwood said. “That’s part of our fear, that that’s going to start happening over here because of some of the comments that have been coming out of the White House and elsewhere.”

Moving forward, there was a sense shared by most of the panelists that the media should push back against current trends by trying to build trust in their communities, be it through stronger investments in local news or hiring a diverse staff.

Despite the clear obstacles, Sharon Moshavi, the senior vice president of New Initiatives at the International Center for Journalists, argued that there is at least some hope.

“There’s a slight ray of sunshine,” Moshavi said. “Journalists also get galvanized the same way you see in the U.S. The sense of mission is stronger, the sense that the media as a group globally are under attack. At the same time that the attacks are increasing, there’s nothing like being a threat as well, for better or for worse, to galvanize folks.”

The panel, hosted by the National Press Club Journalism Institute, included three segments: How press freedom in the United States compares to other countries, the state of local news gathering and the need to make evidence-based journalism more economically sustainable.

The United Nations General Assembly originally declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in 1993 in order to draw a spotlight to threats posed to the media, recognize the importance of a free press and to honor journalists who have lost their lives performing their duties.

Although the White House did not issue any formal recognition of the day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement marking its importance.

“Ethical and transparent media coverage is foundational to free and open societies,” Tillerson said. “It promotes accountability and sparks public debate. Societies built on good governance, strong civil society, and an open and free media are more prosperous, stable and secure.”