In the 1973, as U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended and the truth behind the Watergate scandal unfolded, journalists in America had a revelation; relentlessly questioning the actions of government leaders was an essential part of their role, as was preserving the integrity of the political environment.
In the years following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, a similar revelation occurred. The event no doubt caused the nation deep grief, fear, confusion and a greater sense of nationalism, among other compelling emotions. These emotions, however, contributed to a long-term failure of The Fourth Estate.
Reporting the aftermath of September 11 must have been unimaginably difficult, and on the day and the days that followed, it was an exemplary display of noncommercial observing, truth-seeking and communal grieving. Many journalists even risked their lives to fulfill their duty of reporting this event to the nation and the world.
But the fear and emotion that overcame the nation hindered the ability of journalists to serve as a watchdog of government decisions. In 2003, the media failed to adequately investigate claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, leading to a war that eight years later is now nearly ubiquitous in its unpopularity among the public. As the war went on, we all saw the errors of their ways, as well as of the ways of our political leaders.
The journalism of 2011 is more digitized, polarized, instantaneous and user-generated than ever. Physical newspapers are dying, with no solution in sight, and no idea as to what the future will hold. Ironically, one of the most successful cheerleaders for traditional newspapers, Rupert Murdoch, is now standing trial for a phone hacking scandal, which included September 11 victims. This blemish on journalistic integrity is one that the metamorphosing news industry could have done without.
In terms of objective content, there are countless critics of the coverage of the wars and of international affairs over the past 10 years. But there is also the contagiousness of the Wikileaks model, recently adapted for applications from al Jazeera and The Wall Street Journal, and for the first time, soldiers reporting directly from the front lines via the Internet. “Citizen journalism” as a whole may lack the reliable analysis of a professionally-trained journalist, but it has certainly brought us a refreshing perspective.
In a post-9/11 world, the United States has experienced troubles with privacy, safety, economy, discrimination, corporate and political corruption, and war, to name a few. The world has changed, as has the way its events are reported. Today, as always, a successfully functioning investigative Fourth Estate is essential.
To preserve this, there must be more support for nonprofit and public media sources, innovative participatory reporting applications, and the many organizations that provide transparent government data. In the past decade, these all have proven to be excellent tools for holding government accountable. Furthermore, the need to create a sustainable business model for traditional news media is long overdue. This should be a top priority for academics, advocates and industry leaders in this field.
As we reflect on the past decade, the revelations of 1973 and 2003 should be embraced. The powerful journalism on 9/11 allowed us to feel connected as a nation, providing some hope to take on the long road of recovery. The anniversary should once again bring to us a sense of nationalism, but one that inspires us to be engaged in the decisions of our government and uphold the values of our political system.