Professional journalist Bethany Barnes recalled something important she learned about the role of journalism while working as an education beat reporter for The Oregonian.
“On the schools beat, there are parents who have time to show up to board meetings, parents who organize on social media, parents who call reporters. These are the most visible parents, the most empowered parents, and they’re the families whose stories are easiest to tell,” she wrote.
“But not all families are similarly equipped to insist their stories be told,” Barnes continued. “And, it would be an injustice if my coverage was skewed to show only those who are. It’s on journalists to seek out the stories of those who otherwise would be left out of the public record. If we aim ‘to give voice to the voiceless,’ it requires more than asking for sound-bite quotes. It means listening to their story.”
Thomas Jefferson penned the famous adage, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Yet in today’s world, equality, it all its forms, seems unreachable, especially when it comes our individual voices in the public arena.
In America, not all are equipped as others to participate in the marketplace of ideas or have their voices heard. A free press seeks to correct this imbalance by chronicling events on those that go unnoticed. A free press provides a voice to the voiceless.
Investigative journalist Katherine Boo has spent years documenting the lives of people faced with poverty, incarceration, and disability. Her work earned her the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that “disclosed wretched neglect and abuse in the city’s group homes for the mentally retarded, which forced officials to acknowledge the conditions and begin reforms.” A champion for the unnoticed, Boo remarked that “A collateral cost of being a felon – or of being obese, addicted, illiterate, undocumented, homeless, or on public assistance – is how easily your experiences will be discounted.”
Boo has worked tirelessly against the common practice of discounting an individual’s voice by virtue of their appearance or circumstances. To her, the problem isn’t a lack of voices but a lack of listeners. This issue of people ignoring those in need of help has motivated her to create “more urgent, convincing sentences, in the hopes of drawing those reluctant listeners in.” Were it not for her words, several societal reforms would have ceased to exist.
Right now, press outlets are uncovering injustices that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. In June, a team of ProPublica reporters uncovered data that showed that of the first 100 deaths of COVID-19 in Chicago, 70 of them were African-American individuals. African-Americans make up only 30% of the city’s population. This revelation, among many things, showed racial disparity on the virus’s effects. Their article read:
“The racial disparities in coronavirus deaths have largely been attributed to endemic and entrenched inequalities in Chicago — decades of disinvestment in the predominantly black neighborhoods on the South and West sides that have left residents with fewer jobs, poorer health and diminished opportunities. Those forces often are portrayed as intractable and, during a pandemic, nearly impossible to fix.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, waves of articles like ProPublica’s have revealed cracks in our society’s infrastructure and have helped rally support for lasting systematic change. None of this could come to pass without an unfettered free press, an independent check on power that not only gives a voice to the voiceless, but ears to the hearers.
While a free press isn’t perfect, it can act as an agent for true and lasting societal change by documenting the poor, downtrodden, imprisoned, disabled, uneducated, and enfeebled. The First Amendment, the jewel of the Constitution, allows the very least of our society to have a voice and to have that voice heard. A free press helps that voice be heard.