Guard The 1st Amendment In The Electronic Era

Posted: August 07, 1994

There is a wonderful array of exciting possibilities in the development of new electronic media. There is the promise of a technology that can make more information and debate available to the public, that can liberate reporters to do more effective and conclusive research, that can offer an unlimited newshole to every newsroom in America.

But there are some profoundly important worries as well. Economics will drive most of the developments that take place; it is always economics and commerce that drive the uses of new technology. For that reason, there will be contention for control at a variety of levels.

It seems to me that there are three such levels that journalists should be particularly concerned about:

* Regulation. There already are attempts at the federal level to begin regulation, and there will be many more at federal, state and local levels.

There are two models to reference here: the broadcast industry, which is licensed and regulated, and the publication industry, which largely is not. The key in dealing with the prospect of regulation is the issue of content. To some extent, broadcast licenses are dependent upon a governmental review that extends to content.

It is critical that journalists ensure that any governmental review of new media not extend to content. It will be important to follow the publication model here - no licensing or content-based regulation - in order to preserve First Amendment rights in the new media. If we don't, the migration to new media technologies can incorporate an erosion of the First Amendment.

* Commercialization. Because the development of new media will be driven by economics, journalists must concern themselves with the setting of appropriate standards for separating editorial and commercial content.

In ethical publications and on ethical broadcasts, a strict separation is kept between advertising and editorial matter in order to afford the reader/ listener/viewer a clear understanding of what he or she is receiving.

One of the chief values provided by the journalist is independence: The reader or listener can use material with confidence that it has not been presented with any unstated ulterior motive. This is one of the core ethics of the profession - that the business interests of the publisher/broadcaster will not color the journalism.

This can be easily eroded. For example, if the newscaster hawks a product on the air seconds after he has finished the news, the integrity of the journalism is compromised.

In the brave new world of interactive media, the potential for burying messages and the commercial pressure to do so will be powerful.

Journalists must act quickly to provide standards for the separation and clear labeling of editorial and commercial content. Again, the newspaper model is most useful here: For years, reputable newspapers have provided clear guidelines for labeling advertising as such and keeping it separate from news, despite considerable commercial pressure to do otherwise. This has protected a key strength of the journalist and must be incorporated into the development of new media.

* Independence. New technologies may provide ways for individuals and small entrepreneurial ventures to develop journalism that will exploit the new media in exciting, constructive ways. It is appealing, for example, to think of the Internet's spawning a new generation of I. F. Stones.

But, again, economics and commerce will drive development. At the beginning of a new technological age, some advantage usually goes to the small, nontraditional practitioner. But soon, as more capital and other resources are needed for development, economics can tilt more power to the powerful. In an age when much of the communications business already has conglomerated into a few large corporations, this should worry all of us, not just a few would-be Izzy Stones.

On a business level, we need to worry about ways to protect the small entrepreneur in an intensely competitive field. In the newsroom, we should ensure that the new technology will help tilt power back to the individual reporter or photographer in a field that is becoming alarmingly top-down in its thinking and practices.

On the street, the great fear is that this new world will move the power of information from the cheap seats (25 to 50 cents a day) of the daily newspaper to a pricier environment in which a new underclass - the information have-nots - is disadvantaged.

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