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Editorial: A Free And Independent Press Doesn’t Serve Itself. It Serves All Of Us.

Nancy Klingener

We are not your enemies.

The President’s language regarding news coverage he disagrees with is disingenuous, dishonest and dangerous. Some cheer at his fake news claims. Some jeer at news reporters. Some sneer at news that doesn’t comport with their worldview. None of that makes journalists their enemies.

At a rally on Aug. 2 in Pennsylvania, the president said, “What ever happened to honest reporting? They don’t report it. They only make up stories.’’

Mr. President, honest reporting is thriving in South Florida and across this country.

First, journalism knows nothing other than honesty. Anything short of that standard cannot be called journalism. When the Broward County School District administration insisted the Parkland school shooter had “no connection” to its Promise disciplinary program, the district’s own documents said otherwise. The district eventually acknowledged the gunman was assigned to the program while in middle school just before WLRN News published its report citing the documents, disproving weeks of reassurances.

The public’s right to know such information is not derived from partisan politics or professional quarrels or even personal tragedy. The public’s right to know the full details of a mass shooter’s interaction with a public institution he targeted is rooted in the responsibility that underpins our democracy.

Voting in a representative democracy, regardless if it's for a local school board or for the President of the United States, is a temporary transfer of power from voters to those elected. If those elected are to be well-informed, so too must the voters. The right to know truly is a civil right.

Second, news is not fake. News is truth. If the truth contradicts official claims, that does not make it untrue. In 2016, as Zika showed up in Miami mosquitos, the Florida Department of Health said Zika test results for pregnant women would take no more than two weeks. Getting accurate test results quickly is important, since an expecting mom can pass the virus to her fetus, possibly causing a birth defect. When asked by WLRN News at a public town hall, a health department representative stuck to that one-to-two week timeline. Only when a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor at the same event acknowledged some tests were taking longer did the state health department admit that it could take five weeks for results. “We’re going to come up with the true number so that people can understand what the expectation is," the health department finally conceded.

Third, inconvenient truths are truths nonetheless. In May, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection sent out a memo to state environmental and county health offices. The purpose was to clarify the process for testing the water quality of local water systems. The memo was issued after WLRN News inquired about the testing process. A Wilton Manors resident was suspicious about his water. He had his own water quality tests performed, and the tests found the water contained over six times the EPA limit for trihalomethanes. The EPA says they can cause an “increased risk of cancer.” The resident had his water tested during a time period when the Fort Lauderdale water system was using chlorine to disinfect the system. Levels of trihalomethanes grow tremendously during chlorine burns. The Broward County Health Department didn’t test for trihalomethanes during the chlorine burns saying the burns amounted to abnormal operating conditions. A regional EPA official said the burns did not create abnormal conditions and followed up with a memo saying it "identified inconsistencies" when Florida was testing for certain dangerous chemicals.

Criticizing journalism is to be expected. Fair and civil criticism should even be encouraged. We aren’t perfect. Journalists strive to get it right and get it all. We need to work harder to be transparent about our work and methods. Perhaps we also need to work harder at reminding our audiences about the value of a free and independent press.

What’s at stake is nothing short of our social contract with one another as Americans.

Citizens have to decide if they will adhere to a common set of facts and rediscover trust in a common purpose.

And those elected to represent our interests have to choose between the productive power of crafting policies toward a common good or amassing plain, raw power.

A free and independent press doesn’t serve itself. It serves all of us.

Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.
Alicia Zuckerman is Editorial Director at WLRN, where she edits narrative and investigative audio journalism. In 2020, she was named Editor of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter.
Terence Shepherd is news director at WLRN News, the public radio news outlet serving Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties. He is past chairman of the Radio Television Digital News Association and current chair of the organization's foundation.
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