A free press and a responsible one

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“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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment is so well known that most people don’t even think about it. Americans can say what they want, believe what they want, complain to the government and associate with whomever they please. Those are all individual freedoms. The only item listed that applies to an institution is freedom of the press.

When the Constitution was drafted, of course, “the press” was pretty much anyone who owned a printshop and had something to say. The idea of journalism as something separate from commercial printing didn’t come into vogue until the 19th century and only at the beginning of the 20th century did newspapers begin to drop their openly partisan perspectives and concentrate on reporting news objectively and accurately. “The press” had morphed from mere polemic something similar to a public institution. As radio and television increased the average person’s ability to connect with the world, journalism became less of a business and more of a profession.

The biggest difference between other professions and journalism is that most professions require a license to practice them legally. But the First Amendment pretty well ensures that journalism can never be regulated by the government in the same way. So journalists over the decades have develop their own codes of ethics and while they have no legal force, those ethics are an integral part of how news organizations operate. “Sacred trust” may be too dramatic a term, but we do try to keep in mind our responsibility to the public.

The coming of the Internet has brought the press in a kind of full circle. Now anybody with an online connection can make his opinions heard and call it news, with or without fact-checking and balanced research.

Let’s be clear that we’re not calling for any sort of censorship here. Everybody should be free to publish what they want subject to basic libel and obscenity laws. Nevertheless, we do believe it’s important for established news organizations like the Herald to adhere as closely as possible to the standards established in our profession.

Sometimes that means stepping on toes. Sometimes that means getting under the skin of a public official. Sometimes it means losing an advertiser or a subscriber. And sometimes it means holding back on a story because we just don’t have enough verification.

But what it always means is that when we go to press, we have done our best to make sure that you, the reader, have as complete and accurate a picture as we can provide, with on-the-record sources to back up what we print and no fear of making enemies by telling the truth. We’re not perfect, certainly – errors do crop up from time to time. When they do, we’ll correct them on the record. Because despite all the hoopla about “media bias,” we take your trust seriously.

The First Amendment guarantees that we can print freely. Our responsibility to our readers requires us to print honestly and impartially. We intend to continue doing both.

— Editorial board

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