Today more and more people understand that the First Amendment wasn’t just written for the press. It was written for Americans—and there’s an opportunity, especially now, in our digital world, for all Americans to fully embrace their First Amendment rights. 

It’s easier today to exercise your right to free speech than it ever has been. We have so many creative, fast-moving ways to share. Write a blog, post a YouTube video, tweet, create a meme, develop a podcast, share a TikTok or go old-fashioned and write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or call in to a radio talk show.

We all have a lot to say. But who is listening?

The challenge is the cacophony — the sheer scale and tenor of competing voices, and we all know that not all of those voices belong to the angels. We can see that people who wish to create bedlam and menace are often the very first to use these tools the most aggressively. But it’s also a double-edged sword.

The democratization of storytelling also gives us journalists a greater chance to curate and tell more complete stories and aggregate them all in a way that serves the greater good. 

It’s this ideal of serving the greater good that can distinguish journalism from the many other forms of protected speech.

Journalism is commonly thought of as a mediating institution. Simply put, a mediating institution bridges the gap between each of us and the larger society. It stands between an individual’s private life and the public.

Martin Buber, the 20th century philosopher and political activist, helps us to understand this role through his philosophy of dialog between our inner and outer worlds. Journalism serves as a kind of bridge in society, translating the “I” to the “other” and the “other” to the “I.” Buber had said that individuals cannot know themselves except in relationship with a community. This “I-to-other” translation work is what journalism has traditionally been able to do, albeit with many flaws and omissions.

But today, highly partisan, so-called news networks in print, online and on air, are abandoning this role choosing instead to build loyalty with one group or another by creating echo chambers of unquestioned beliefs that can increase the number of clicks, likes and shares and, readers and viewers. They intentionally do not serve as a bridge to understanding others because it is not in their business or political interests to do so.

Recent media research shows us that people generally prefer to stay inside their own tribes and to have their belief systems reinforced rather than expanded or challenged. This was, after all, the genius of Roger Ailes and the creation of Fox News.

Ironically, then, the big risk now is that even with more voices, we’ll have more entrenched tribes – and not necessarily a wider
marketplace of ideas and perspectives.

For most of my career, I’ve been looking for an antidote to these trends and searching for ways that journalism can promote connection, belonging and a sense of common purpose.

The ideas that I’ve been pursuing lately, explored in our, just-published book “News for US: Citizen-Centered Journalism,” are about the urgent need for journalism to make dramatic changes to meet the moment. Amid this din of voices, disharmony and animosity, journalism must return to its roots as a mediating institution and play a facilitative role.

It can do this by introducing people to a wide range of ideas, perspectives and beliefs so that a self-governing people can come together to fulfill the founding promise of “e pluribus unum.”
My two coauthors and I suggest that news outlets committed to democracy practice relational journalism, an approach that focuses on the development of an ongoing relationship with the community it serves. It involves a set of practices that aim not only to restore people’s trust in news media but also to increase citizens’ power in the democratic process.

Admittedly, this is a much higher bar for journalism than the just-the-facts-mam approach of yesteryear or the more modern and all-too-common polarizing volley of rhetorical talk.

The opportunity we have today is to find ways to celebrate our diversity and harness technology to foster the type of constructive dialog that a free, self-governing people need to shape their shared future, together. It is our chance to sustain journalism, as well as to strengthen this imperiled democracy.