Sometimes national news stories are so important that local news organizations devote resources to covering them. We’ve seen this to be true with incidents of extreme violence —9/11, Sandy Hook, Chris Dorner, the DC snipers, Benghazi—but when the topics are a little more sophisticated (and seemingly blessed by bipartisan Beltway consensus) they tend to drop off the local news radar.
The revelations about the National Security Agency and the PRISM program are an excellent case in point. This is news that affects millions and millions of Americans in extremely significant ways (for starters, it’s a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights), and nearly every local news outlet has done at least one story on it, as they should. Kudos especially to WHAS and WFPL who wrote their own stories on the subject as opposed to only running wire copy.
Journalists have an obligation to make significant issues such as this one as interesting and relevant as possible to their audience. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism states, journalists “must balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need.” Information about the ongoing, heretofore-secret abridgment of Constitutional rights fits that description perfectly.
So here’s hoping that local media will not simply let the normal news flow wash this story away, and that they will link it to the ongoing erosion of civil liberties that dates back not just to 9/11, but to the War on Drugs. Here’s hoping that local media will press elected Congressional officials (John Yarmuth, Rand Paul, and Mitch McConnell) on these questions, and that they ensure that the subsequent debate does not turn into another round of savvy partisan gamesmanship.
The abridgment of our Constitutional rights is something that every local journalist worthy of the title ought to take extremely seriously, especially because half of us watch local news and another 14% get their news mostly from newspapers. When a substantial number of people in the community rely primarily upon local news, it’s important that local news keep them abreast of big national issues.
AS an additional note, kudos to WDRB for their decision to stop using “breaking news” and to develop a clear set of public guidelines for the station. Number 10—“We will oppose any attempt by government or individuals to curb the free flow of information to the people”—seems especially relevant to the NSA topic, given all the threats to prosecute people involved. So here’s hoping that WDRB lives up to their promise and provides ongoing coverage of the Obama administration’s numerous attacks on whistleblowers and journalists.
James Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School.