Freedom of the Press
You are here
Despite substantial upheaval in the traditional media sector, the United States retains a diverse press landscape and some of the strongest legal protections in the world for freedom of expression. The most serious threats to press freedom stem from an increasingly challenging economic environment. The media have also faced problems related to the tension between the principle of openness on the one hand and the national security priorities of the government on the other. During 2015, however, there were fewer controversies than in previous years over government surveillance of journalists or attempts to compel reporters to reveal the sources of leaked information.
- In August, two journalists with a local Virginia television station were shot and killed by a former colleague during a live broadcast. The unusual incident marked the first work-related murder of a journalist in the United States since 2007.
- There was no repetition of the previous year’s large number of press freedom violations related to coverage of demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. However, a handful of confrontations at protests were reported in 2015, and two journalists faced charges following their widely criticized arrest in Ferguson in 2014.
Legal Environment: 6 / 30
The United States has one of the world’s strongest systems of legal protection for media independence. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the core guarantee of press freedom and freedom of speech. While those rights have come under pressure at various times in the country’s history, the independent court system has repeatedly issued rulings that uphold and expand the right of journalists to be free of state control. The courts have also given the press broad protection from libel and defamation suits that involve commentary on public figures, though libel formally remains a criminal offense in a number of states.
Some 40 states have shield laws that give journalists either absolute or limited protection from orders to reveal confidential sources or other information gathered in the course of their work. The federal government, however, offers no such protection, and efforts to adopt a federal shield law have been unsuccessful to date.
Over the past decade, federal prosecutors have provoked a series of controversies by attempting to compel testimony from journalists in high-profile cases, including some centered on government workers charged with leaking information to the media or lobbyists. While some of the cases were initiated by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, the administration of President Barack Obama has proven even more zealous in pursuing government secrecy cases and issuing demands for information from reporters. Indeed, the Obama administration has brought more criminal cases against alleged leakers than were brought by all previous administrations combined.
In 2013, the Justice Department revealed that it had secretly subpoenaed and seized records for more than 20 telephone lines used by reporters at the Associated Press (AP). The Justice Department also acknowledged that it had secretly subpoenaed and seized the e-mail and telephone records of James Rosen, a Fox News correspondent. Both actions were taken as part of national security leak investigations. After a firestorm of criticism, the department issued new guidelines that significantly narrowed conditions under which the government could gain access to records of journalists’ communications with sources, and both the president and the attorney general have pledged that journalists would not be jailed for refusing to identify sources.
There were no major new cases of federal government surveillance of journalists or of pressure on journalists to reveal confidential sources during 2015, though an existing case came to a conclusion in the courts. In May, former Central Intelligence Agency employee Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for leaking classified information to New York Times reporter James Risen. However, after previous threats to do so, prosecutors did not compel Risen to testify about his sources at Sterling’s trial. Separately, in January, online journalist and activist Barrett Brown was sentenced to 63 months in prison after pleading guilty in 2014 to charges related to his posting of a link in a chat room; the link led to a file that was publicly available on the internet, but that contained stolen data (obtained via hacking) from Stratfor Global, an intelligence contractor.
The right to access official information, with some exceptions, is protected under the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In one of its first acts after taking office, the Obama administration announced a more expansive interpretation of the law than had prevailed under President Bush. In 2009, the attorney general declared that records should be released to the public unless doing so would violate another law or cause foreseeable harm to protected interests, including personal privacy and national security. Despite this and other pro-disclosure rhetoric, the administration has drawn criticism for its record on transparency. Complaints have focused on the government’s refusal to release many documents concerning national security and counterterrorism issues, and its heavy redaction of documents that are made available. According to an AP analysis, the federal government censored or denied some 45 percent of all FOIA requests in fiscal year 2015; in addition, in a record 17 percent of requests, the agency in question said that it could not find the requested information. Handling of the FOIA process also came under scrutiny from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the inspector general for the State Department.
Official regulation of media content in the United States is minimal, and there are no industrywide self-regulatory bodies for either print or broadcast media, although some individual outlets have an ombudsperson. By law, radio and television airwaves are considered public property and are leased to private stations, which determine content. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is charged with administering licenses and reviewing content to ensure that it complies with federal limits on indecent or offensive material in terrestrial broadcasts. While the judiciary has declined to issue a broad ruling on the FCC’s authority to regulate indecency on the airwaves, recent decisions have chipped away at the agency’s power.
Although the government does not restrict political or social engagement over the internet, there are laws banning or regulating promulgation of child-abuse images, exposure of minors to indecent content, dissemination of confidential information, online gambling, and the use of copyrighted material. In recent years there has been mounting criticism from public officials and the general public over hateful messages on Twitter and other internet platforms, cyberbullying, the encouragement of extremism and violence, and invasion of privacy. Thus far, the principal response has been pledges of self-regulation from major internet companies.
In 2013, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of extensive surveillance by the signals-intelligence agency generated widespread criticism of U.S. policy, from both domestic and foreign sources. Civil libertarians and press freedom advocates pointed to the potential effect of the data collection on the rights of Americans, and free speech organizations asserted that the surveillance revelations were causing writers to practice self-censorship. In June 2015, Congress passed the USA Freedom Act, prohibiting the NSA from engaging in bulk collection of Americans’ telephone and internet records. While civil libertarians said the new law was a step forward from its predecessor, the USA Patriot Act, they expressed disappointment that Congress left much of the government’s surveillance regime intact.
Political Environment: 10 / 40 (↑1)
While self-censorship among journalists remains rare in the United States and official censorship is virtually nonexistent, an increasing number of news outlets are aggressively partisan in their coverage of political affairs. The press itself is frequently a source of contention, with conservatives and liberals alike accusing the media of bias. The appearance of enhanced polarization is driven, to some degree, by the influence of all-news cable television channels and blogs, many of which display an obvious editorial slant. The popularity of talk-radio shows, whose hosts are primarily conservative, has also played an important role in media polarization. Nonetheless, most U.S. newspapers make a serious effort to keep a wall of separation between news reporting, commentary, and editorials. Most terrestrial broadcasters and major news agencies similarly avoid partisan reporting.
The Obama administration has come under fire for effectively limiting journalistic access to federal officials, as well as official events. The president held fewer press conferences in his first term than did his predecessors, although he has held a substantial number of meetings with small groups of usually friendly journalists. Journalists have complained of an environment in which officials are less likely to discuss policy issues with reporters than during previous administrations, noting that “minders” representing the administration often sit in during meetings involving reporters and federal officials.
Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, journalists have had mixed success in gaining access to proceedings and facilities related to counterterrorism, including the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where over 100 detainees continued to be held in 2015. The military and the courts have typically granted accommodations that represent improvements on the initial restrictions, but that still make full and effective coverage a challenge for reporters.
While foreign journalists are generally able to report in the United States with few impediments, from time to time there are cases of foreign journalists being denied entry to the country, usually on the basis of vague national security rationales.
In recent years there have been few physical attacks on journalists in reprisal for their work. However, journalists covering demonstrations or other breaking news events are occasionally denied access or even detained briefly by police. For example, in November 2015, a local television reporter was arrested for unlawful assembly while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, and journalists were obstructed and told to leave by protesters and faculty members while reporting on a demonstration at the University of Missouri, prompting a national discussion on press freedom. In August, two journalists—from the Washington Post and Huffington Post—were charged with trespassing and interfering with police officers in connection with an incident from 2014, during protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of an unarmed black teenager. Police were widely criticized for the reporters’ 2014 arrests and had not been expected to press charges.
In a rare case of deadly violence against journalists in the United States, two journalists from a Virginia television station were shot and killed by an emotionally troubled former colleague while conducting an on-air interview in August.
Economic Environment: 5 / 30
Media in the United States are overwhelmingly under private ownership. Nevertheless, National Public Radio (NPR) and television’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)—editorially independent networks that are funded by a combination of government allocations and private contributions—enjoy substantial audiences. In addition, cable television providers carry a variety of foreign news sources, including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Spanish-language services, and state-controlled television channels from Russia and China. There are no significant restrictions on the means of news production and distribution, nor are there excessive fees or taxes associated with media operations. Advertising is allocated through a highly developed, market-based industry.
Traditional media, including print and broadcast outlets, have suffered financially from the increasing popularity of the internet as a news source. The newspaper industry in particular is undergoing a period of decline and readjustment. There were an estimated 1,300 daily newspapers, geared primarily toward local readerships, in circulation as of 2014—a record low. Weekday newspaper circulation fell 7 percent in 2015, and advertising revenue declined by nearly 8 percent.
Even the largest and most prestigious newspapers have faced falling print circulations and advertising revenues and been forced to cut staff. To compensate, many outlets are increasingly turning to freelance journalists. Most newspapers have rebalanced their operations to emphasize website and multimedia content. A few have dropped print editions entirely, while others publish only a few times a week. Financial weakness has affected outlets’ news coverage as a whole, but particularly their ability to conduct investigative reporting and cover foreign news, which require considerable resources. It has also led to increased pressure from advertisers and the growing use of “sponsored content.”
A number of prominent city and state newspapers have folded in recent years, weakening the media’s ability to provide scrutiny of local affairs, ferret out corruption, and ensure accountability in government. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center revealed that there had been a 35 percent decline in the number of reporters assigned to statehouses across the United States since 2003. Less than a third of local newspapers and just over 14 percent of local television stations assign any reporters to cover the statehouse. Nonprofit online outlets, financed by grants and donations and staffed by veteran local reporters, have emerged in response, though most struggle to attract funding and establish readerships on par with former print publications.
Similarly, to combat the broader decline in investigative journalism, philanthropic foundations have sponsored projects that focus on in-depth coverage of education, criminal justice, and corruption issues. For example, ProPublica was established in 2007 as a nonprofit, independent news agency dedicated to investigative journalism; it is financed by a variety of foundations. In 2013, Pierre Omidyar, billionaire founder of the online auction site eBay, created First Look Media, composed of a nonprofit media and investigative journalism site as well as a profit-seeking “media concern” whose proceeds will support independent journalism. While such initiatives have helped to fill the vacuum created by the deterioration of newspapers, questions have been raised about the long-term sustainability of enterprises that depend on large private donations. These projects have also featured clashes between career journalists and the managers selected by wealthy donors who have little experience in the news industry.
Broadcast networks and major cable news channels remain profitable, despite long-term trends showing a decline in viewership, particularly for local television news. Overall, television continues to enjoy dominance as a medium of news consumption, but most Americans now get their news from a variety of devices and platforms. Approximately 75 percent of Americans used the internet in 2015, and the number and influence of news-focused websites and blogs have grown rapidly over the past decade.* Social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have also gained prominence as a means of breaking news and mobilizing public opinion on political and policy issues. Sites like BuzzFeed have taken steps to improve their journalistic credentials, while Vice News, a relatively new online venture, has quickly established itself as a source for international news. It remains unclear whether such sites will be able to build stable business models that are both news-focused and profitable, as many continue to experiment with their strategies and receive significant funding from investors.
Media ownership concentration is an ongoing concern in the United States. Mergers and acquisitions of local television stations continued in 2015, though the number of outlets changing hands declined to 101, from nearly 300 in 2013. While they are prohibited by FCC rules from owning more than one top-four local station in any one market, many media companies have flouted these restrictions through “joint service agreements,” which allow them to operate stations that are owned on paper by others. The FCC in March 2014 enacted a new rule to curb the practice, holding that responsibility for selling 15 percent or more of a station’s advertising time amounts to an ownership stake. Consolidation of ownership has been spurred in recent years by a pattern in which media conglomerates spin off their newspaper units from their broadcast assets, and the separate companies then pursue mergers and acquisitions in their respective sectors.
In one of the year’s most controversial acquisitions, billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson was identified as the buyer of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in December, prompting the paper’s editor to resign. Adelson, who initially sought to remain anonymous, has extensive holdings in the city’s casino industry and has repeatedly sued journalists for defamation in the past, raising concerns that the paper’s coverage could be affected. However, other recent purchases of newspapers by wealthy businessmen with nonmedia interests—particularly sports-team owner John Henry’s acquisition of the Boston Globe and the Washington Post’s purchase by Jeffrey Bezos, founder of the online commerce giant Amazon, both in 2013—have been seen as beneficial for the outlets.
*Internet penetration rates are estimates subject to revision.