Just calling for press freedom is not enough. We need the WHY

In this month’s issue of the Quill — the official publication of the Society of Professional Journalists — is a brief piece on International Press Freedom day. (Take action for world press freedom)

While author Bruce C. Swaffield makes an important point that U.S. journalists should be more aware of threats to press freedom and do more to defend our colleagues under threat, he does not explain WHY.

Swaffield says journalists could write a story for your paper, broadcast station, website or blog, post a comment on Facebook or Twitter; hold a special discussion during lunch in the newsroom or in the  college newspaper office; send an email or letter to an ambassador in a country where the press is being suppressed or censored; place a small sign in the window of your car proclaiming, “Today is World Press Freedom Day.”

Those are all very good ideas. They cover the WHOWHAT and WHERE. But what is missing is the WHY! And as all good journalists know, the WHY is an important part of putting the story into context.

  • WHY should a local newspaper or television station care about press freedom issues in other countries? (Other than for  general humanitarian reasons.)
  • WHY should local readers/viewers/listeners in the United States care?

For some of us, it is second nature to see how events in other countries affect Americans. That is because some of us have had the opportunity and privilege to either live overseas or visit other countries for more than just guided tourism. But for most Americans — included educated and intellectually curious people — making the link between foreign affairs and domestic affairs does not come as rapidly.

Answering the question of WHY people should be aware of international events puts these events into a context that all can understand. So let’s discuss some WHY-related issues.


Americans can buy inexpensive goods from around the world because of foreign trade. Think of the Toyota or Honda you drive or the Chilean Granny Smith apples available in the winter or the toys made in China.

How does doing business at the local Honda dealer or Wal-Mart tie into press freedom?

Before any business signs a contract with a supplier or distributor it needs to know that the contract will be honored. Likewise, the business needs to have an accurate understanding of the economics of the deal. They need information about inflation, currency fluctuations, work force levels and infrastructure are vital to any business. And woe be it to the businessman who does not find a way to get that information before signing a contract.

This information is especially necessary if a company wants to sell to another country.

In North America and most of Europe that data are readily available either directly from the government or via enterprising reporting by journalists.

In China, Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, etc that information is not available so easily because the governments hide the data and interfere with any attempts by the media to get it.

So for local companies looking to expand their markets, they should be concerned about how free the media are in their targeted market.

Foreign Investment in the United States

Just as American companies open factories and facilities around the world, foreign companies return the favor in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, direct foreign investment in the United States was valued at $2.34 trillion in 2009.

A look at employment from these direct investments is also telling. The Census Bureau shows that in 2008 direct investment in the United States by foreign companies accounted for 5.6 million jobs, or about 4.7 percent of the workforce.

And the nice thing about a lot of these tables is that you can get a state-by-state breakdown of investments. For example, about 140,000 jobs in Indiana are directly related to foreign investment in that state.

One of the reasons companies from other countries invest in the United States is because of the ready access to information that makes for good business decisions. A key element of that access is free and independent journalism.

For local news organizations, it might behoove local readers/viewers/listeners to know more about the countries that invest in the US.

How much you want to bet that the financial well-being of Germany, Japan, Brazil and others will affect their investments in the United States? Therefore, it makes sense for local media outlets to pay attention to what is going on in the investor countries, even if it only by using wire services or relationships with media outlets in those countries.

The link between free press and economic well-being and growth is not hard to make. It just takes some imagination and reporters and editors who can see the connections.


One of the hot hot hot topics in the U.S. right now is immigration. It dominates the U.S. news as senators and congressmen try to come up with a plan that will accommodate the millions of aliens now in the United States without the proper paperwork.

No one seems to be looking at WHY there are so many immigrants working in the US without the proper documents. And, for Swaffield’s purposes, WHY there might be a connection between immigration and global press freedom.

To start with, the reason most immigrants come to the United States is for the same reason my family came: To have a better life.

But first, let’s admit there are people who are xenophobic and do not want more immigrants. They don’t want people who don’t “look or think like them” entering the United States. Oddly enough, many of these people are also those who argue for budget cuts that encourage more illegal immigration to the United States.

One way to reduce immigration to the US is to promote better economic opportunities in the source countries. That means supporting US development programs. And that means more money and support for USAID.

I have met a number of farmers here in Honduras who were ready to leave their families and risk the dangerous trip to the United States so they could send money back home. All they wanted to do is make sure their families did not starve and make sure their children got educated.

The reason the farmers did not leave was because of programs sponsored by USAID that taught the farmers how to shift from subsistence farming of just corn and beans to growing cash crops such as carrots and broccoli.

Once the USAID Feed the Future Program showed these farmers how to properly grow new cash crops, the USAID teams then helped the farm families learn how to properly handle their new-found wealth.

Thanks to the Feed the Future Program, more families are living in healthier situations, fewer children are malnourished and more children are getting an education.

For less than a penny on the dollar, USAID is building a growing group of people who will soon have enough income to buy more goods and services, including items from the United States. At the same time, it encourages people to make their fortunes in their own countries.

Now multiply this result around the world.

But all of this works only if accurate information about crops and markets are available. And this can only occur in countries that have free media. Free media keep governments honest and prevent unscrupulous business interests from manipulating the markets to the detriment of the farmers.

If there were more stories that point out how development programs prevent illegal immigration and promote more U.S. trade, soon readers/listeners/viewers in the United States will see why it is important to know more about what is going on in the world and why we should be concerned about press freedom issues elsewhere.

Immigrants also change the local markets.

McCormick Spice company tracks the growth of spice sales and finds that the changes in sales figures matched changes in the ethnic changes in the sales area.

How hard would it be to do stories about shifts in food sales – grocery stores and restaurants – that are linked to changes in the local immigrant population?

From there, a reporter could easily look at why the immigrants left their home countries and why they settled where they did in the US.

As with so much of reporting, getting to the WHY leads to so many more connections.

And so I repeat:

  • WHY should a local newspaper or television station care about press freedom issues in other countries? (Other than for  general humanitarian reasons.)
  • WHY should local readers/viewers/listeners in the United States care?

The answer is simple: Because what happens around the world DIRECTLY affects every American. It is up to journalists in America to explain to the American people WHY knowledge of global events is important.

Press freedom is an important issue. But it has to be explained. And explaining demands a WHY.


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Filed under Censorship, Connections, International News Coverage, Press Freedom, Story Ideas

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