LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” –First Amendment to the United States Constitution
Fake news? Real news? Newswriting has no end. What matters most among abundant sources of information, however, is an ability to maintain freedom of speech including that of the press. Certainly, without integrity in journalism news is not news and only amounts to opinion. Yet, above that, the United States Constitution includes the law that Congress is not allowed to abridge (prevent, suppress, gag) the press. To do so invites tyranny.
Known as the Fourth Estate, an independent institution that keeps an eye on government, Edmund Burke, a British statesman, is said to have observed the vital role of the press in effective, accountable, representative governing:
“there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
For reasons such as Burke noted, much effort is invested in preserving freedom of speech and of the press as the Founders intended in the United States Constitution. So the American people may observe laws being made and participate in the legislative process, Congress and the press use opportunities availed by latest innovations such as modern technology to help connect Americans to the workings which make up that process.
However, even with best efforts to report on events from local to worldwide, it is no small task to ensure stories are accurate especially in today’s 24-hour news cycle. Human beings, imperfect and owning personal beliefs, provide no lack of doubt to go around regarding trustworthiness of all who write and disseminate “the news.”
This fact is part of what makes the business of journalism difficult, drawing ire on both sides of the political aisle. The work of media production is a business full of competition for readers, viewers, and ratings. It is also important. The press was important enough an institution to get placed specifically in the United States Constitution. Included in the Constitution – the law of the land – a free press matters within the system of checks and balances between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of American government.
As if it were not challenging enough to serve in elected office, Members of Congress must continually pay attention to what they say and how they say it in public, or in whatever form arises that could put them “on the air.” They learn how easy it is to feel that one’s words were taken out of context. It is definitely easy to misunderstand the words of others in normal day-to-day communications, and elected leaders especially must be sure to understand their own views in order to convey what they mean clearly when news can move quickly throughout a day. This means Members of Congress must pay attention so they are not quoted in a way they deem unfavorable or untruthful about their stance on issues, or is unfair coverage.
The press plays an important role in making sure news is accurately covered, timely, and what is generally considered newsworthy. Members of Congress, on the other hand, must handle the moving of bills through the legislative process while keeping constituents informed on what is happening. It is challenging to see reports on legislation moving through the process that receive negative coverage for which Members must stop to do damage control. A reason is often within the very process – legislation not yet completely through a step. When news pieces go out that say what a bill does or does not do, and a controversial question arises as a result of the news, reactions to the bill may bring on a firestorm Members believe they must stop work in order to address and “put out fires.”
It is not necessarily bad that this happens as it is an example of the required checks on government the press affords. At the same time, integrity of the press, and trust that journalists are doing their homework by asking questions that offer the best, balanced coverage is a must.
Journalists must make every effort to report the truth about where a bill is in the process, whether amendments are currently being offered, and so on to accurately show what is occurring.
Gaining an appreciation for how Congress and the press work helps shed light on the important role of each. Managing how the press and Congress operate so both function as designed takes an understanding of each other, by each other, and by the American people who consume the news and participate in the legislative process.
Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is the author of Who Wants to Be Free? Make Sure You Do!, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments(2017), and Moments with Billy Graham(forthcoming).
United States House of Representatives – Media Resources
United States Senate – Media Galleries
The Dirksen Center Resources – “Reporting on Congress: The Role of the Media”
History, Art & Archives – United States House of Representatives Multimedia, “Tradition in the House Press Gallery”
The National Press Club