The First Amendment as a Roadmap for Engaged Journalism

After 20 years of working with journalists, I see a more inclusive, constructive, and engaged civic ecosystem emerging that redefines journalism’s role, reaffirms our first amendment freedoms, and supports communities to thrive.

Who am I to tell this story?

A colleague introduced me to a second-generation journalist, Stephen Silha. That meeting ultimately led us to launch Journalism That Matters, a nonprofit which has been convening conversations that have re-envisioned journalism for thriving, inclusive communities since 2001.

Over the years, I’ve tracked many exciting experiments connecting journalists and community members. I see five shifts among these experiments in “engaged journalism”:

Shifts emerging in journalism

I wondered how these trends fit into a larger context. Because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is a foundational source of journalism’s role in civic life, I looked at how the shifts happening in journalism related to it and was shocked to discover that the five trends not only paralleled the five freedoms in the amendment but even appeared in the same sequence.

The Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments to the Constitution — was part of a compromise to ratify the Constitution by ensuring civil rights and liberties were integral to the new governmental structures.

Democracy, as a system, was designed to deal with its own natural tension: individual freedom and the common good. The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a brilliant construct for thinking about this challenge. Drafted by James Monroe, the First Amendment names five freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. What struck me in looking more deeply is that it articulates a roadmap for how to participate in community life so that communities can effectively govern themselves.

The parallels with emerging journalism provide an exciting reaffirmation of what journalism can contribute to the lives of our communities. The freedoms in the first amendment are more than a list. They are an ecosystem of how people participate with each other and their government in navigating the tension between individual freedom and the common good.

I am no first amendment scholar. I’ve just put a 21st century interpretation on an 18th century expression of bedrock freedoms. The freedoms granted in our founding charter are revitalized as journalism reinvents itself.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

Why was religion included in the first amendment rather than stand on its own? Could it be that in a government designed by and for white, land-owning men, homogenous by today’s standards, religion was an expression of the importance of diversity and inclusion? Could the framers have understood that difference is essential to the health of a system? With such a vastly different understanding of who makes up the populace today, our structures for inclusion in community life are bursting at the seams, hence a shift to putting community first, moving from monocultural to multicultural.

or abridging the freedom of speech,

In a time when free speech could be punished at the whim of the government, it was critical to name. Today, when hate speech and vitriol in public discourse are rampant, many journalism experiments are underway that increase listening. With listening, comes connection and compassion, thus a shift in relationship between journalists and audience from lecturing to listening.

or of the press;

A free press was pivotal to the revolution and the birth of a new form of governance — our democratic republic. The need to be informed sparked a literacy movement that enabled a revolutionary form of government to grow across a continent. While the pamphleteers of old were fiercely partisan, today’s experiments point to constructive approaches to journalism as part of the path to journalism that supports communities to thrive, a shift from problems to possibilities.

or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,

We tend to think of assembly in terms of protest, yet it is also essential for dialogue, for engaging our differences with curiosity, as was at the heart of town hall and tavern alike. Political economy professor Harold Innes, who studied the effects of mechanization of communication, recognized that democracy requires us to talk with each other. Paraphrased by James Carey: “The strength of the oral tradition in Innis’s view was that it could not be easily monopolized. Once the habits of discourse were widespread, the public could take on an autonomous existence and not be subject to the easy control of the state or commerce.” Reading words on a page or a screen are individual acts. They are not enough. We create through our interactions. We have to productively engage each other! Thus a shift in how we engage from debate to dialogue.

and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is a brilliant catchall. If something about the system isn’t working, the people have the right to petition for change. What better way to ensure an active, engaged public than to craft the expectation into a founding document? Today’s technologies can help us act as a civic ecosystem, enabling a shift from reactive to resilient.

How prescient the founders were in providing a map of civic participation. By strengthening this whole system, journalism can find its way back to a financially viable, universally valued, steward of the natural tensions between individual freedom and the common good.

Structures of Engagement

How can we build on these concepts, illuminating examples of inclusive, constructive, and engaged journalism for thriving, resilient communities?

Now that’s a conversation worth having.


Edited 12/11/20 to update the two tables, changing Petition from Reactive/Resilient/Adapt to Go alone/Come together/Collaborate and adding the What’s liberated column to the second table.

Co-founder and director, Journalism That Matters. Author, Engaging Emergence & The Change Handbook. Hosting conversations for addressing complex challenges.

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