By Amanda Palmeira
Every journalist has at least some familiarity with the beloved constitutional amendment that protects his or her craft. But the Newseum Institute recently found that not everyone appreciates the First Amendment as much as journalists do — and worse, some don’t even know what it is.
Newseum released earlier this month its 2015 State of the First Amendment Survey, which asked First Amendment-related questions of 1,002 Americans, then compared the answers to previous years’ surveys. Its goal is to obtain a “general public survey of attitudes about the First Amendment.”
While the survey reveals some disheartening findings about the general public’s knowledge of the First Amendment — 33 percent of those surveyed could not name any of the rights protected by the First Amendment — it also gives important insight into how the public feels about emerging First Amendment issues.
A question about video recordings of police activity, for example, received one of the most consistent answers in the survey: 88 percent of responders agreed that people should be allowed to record the activities of police as long as they do not interfere with police actions. Additionally, one of the other most overwhelming responses in the survey was in regard to whether video from police body cameras should become part of public record: 83 percent believed it should.
This question about making body-camera footage part of the public record has been debated across the country as the technology becomes used in more states. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that 34 states, as of May 18, 2015, were considering legislation to address body-worn cameras for law enforcement.
Earlier this month, the Connecticut General Assembly passed legislation outlining how such body cameras will be used and making the captured footage public record. The other New England states should be looking to Connecticut’s example as well as Newseum’s findings on the topic when creating their own policies.
The response to the body-camera-footage question shows not only a public desire for accountability of police, but it also reflects support of First Amendment-ensured government transparency. When asked if the First Amendment goes too far in protecting the rights it guarantees, only 19 percent said that it did — a decrease from 38 percent last year.
To journalists, muckrakers, and lovers of All the President’s Men, perhaps one of the most disappointing responses was only 69 percent agreeing with the statement, “It is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government.” This is the lowest agreeing response since the question was first asked in 2004, and was down a dramatic 11 points from 2014’s response of 80 percent.
Though Newseum does not ask responders why they answered the way they did, the institute has vast amounts of knowledge on American journalism, history and culture at its disposal, and it lends some of this knowledge to the interpretation of the survey’s results.
“It appears that the negative news stories about such high profile news media personalities as suspended NBC news anchor Brian Williams, and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos have taken their toll on news media credibility among Americans,” the survey stated. “The problematic events surrounding these news personalities may also have eroded the sense among Americans that the media should act as a watchdog against government.”
It is highly unlikely that scandals around two television anchors caused the 11-point drop, but the current practice of media outlets with clickbait and fantastical headlines is certainly eroding the reputation of the watchdog function of the press.
It is important to remember that the Newseum survey offers only a short-term barometer of the general public’s feelings about the press and First Amendment — such a measurement can be dictated by capricious, recent events, not by history or an understanding of the First Amendment’s role.
Though it is valuable for policymakers and lawmakers to understand where the public stands on such issues, the press should have a different response than just accepting the statistics. When responders were asked if they believed the news media tries to report news without bias, 70 percent said they did not. This finding, along with the evidence that Americans are losing faith in the press’ role as a watchdog, serves as a challenge to journalists and the media to better embody the role of the Fourth Estate.
Amanda is a rising second-year law student at New England Law | Boston and a summer intern for NEFAC. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Donations can be made here. Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include: The Robertson Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Foundation, and Boston University.