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Editorial: Journalists performing public service are not the enemy

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Despite unprecedented attacks on the press by the president of the United States, journalists across the country — including here at the Daily Hampshire Gazette — continue our mission of informing a responsible citizenry and holding public officials and institutions accountable.

We regard that as a public service and not the “fake news” that President Donald Trump insists drives the media, which he has repeatedly described as “the enemy of the American people” during his nearly 19 months in office. As recently as Aug. 5, Trump tweeted: “The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust.”

Trump’s rhetoric has fueled some Americans’ distrust of journalists and further blurred the line between fact and opinion in the minds of some news consumers.

In an online poll earlier this month, Ipsos Public Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan research firm, asked 1,003 American adults about their attitudes toward the media. The good news: 85 percent agree that “freedom of the press is essential for American democracy.” The bad news: 29 percent agree that “the news media is the enemy of the American people.”

Just as troubling was a report earlier this year by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Pew Research Center; the study asked 5,035 adults to identify 10 statements as either fact or opinion. About one-quarter of those polled got most or all of the statements wrong.

The verbal attacks by the president — as well as the June 28 assault by a gunman with a vendetta against the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, that killed five employees — has ratcheted up journalists’ concerns about their safety. Soon after the Capital Gazette shooting, Kathleen Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, wrote, “For all of us ink-stained wretches, the hate mail is more vicious than ever. The death threats more frequent.”

While that climate is unsettling, it has not deterred us from our job explaining often complex issues that challenge us, so that you, our readers, stay engaged with your communities and make a difference with your actions.

At the Daily Hampshire Gazette, we routinely accomplish that in our news, business, health, arts and culture, home, living and sports pages. Just last week, for example, we reported on anti-Muslim flyers targeting 1st Congressional District candidate Tahirah Amatul-Wadud; how Baystate Medical Center in Springfield is helping newborns with withdrawal symptoms due to their mothers’ opioid use; an investigation revealing a culture of antagonism toward women in the Department of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; neighbors’ concerns about a proposed townhouse project in Ward 4 of Northampton; what’s holding up the retail sale of recreational marijuana in Massachusetts; and the people camping on the Greenfield Common who are putting a spotlight on the issue of homelessness.

In some cases, our commitment to explain the local impact of a national issue takes days of work. That was the case for Gazette reporter Dusty Christensen who spent more than 30 hours reporting and writing a story about Lucio Perez, of Springfield, who since Oct. 18 has lived in sanctuary at the First Congregational Church in Amherst. If he leaves, Perez, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, fears arrest and deportation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Christensen’s description of “a secure, but often lonely existence” for Perez puts a human face on the impact of the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Among our most important tasks is educating voters so they can make informed decisions, including this year’s elections when five new legislators will be chosen in Hampshire and Franklin counties. That goes beyond reporting on the candidates’ backgrounds and positions on the issues, and publishing endorsements on our Opinion pages. This summer, the Gazette and our sister paper, the Greenfield Recorder, sponsored forums in each of those legislative districts that allowed hundreds of people to assess the candidates for themselves.

We take seriously our role in helping preserve the democracy that was defined by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

More than 230 years later, those words of the third president ring far truer than the cries of “fake news” from today’s White House.