What is the post-election trajectory of America’s free press?

President-elect Joe Biden gives a thumbs-up to admirers at a restaurant in Philadelphia on election day. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

BYU communications professors think Joe Biden’s election bodes well for society to regain trust in mainstream media.

Biden expressed respect for the press and media during his campaign for president. He even offered a direct promise to restore the relationship between the press and the presidency and guaranteed there will be no bullying of the media from his administration.

“A free press is essential to a free society,” Biden said in a tweet that was part of a thread he posted for World Press Freedom Day.

While no one can predict exactly how the relationship of the press and the president will be over the next four years, BYU communication professors suspect Biden’s treatment and rhetoric surrounding freedom of speech will kickstart improvement.

Reporters Without Borders, an organization focused on safeguarding the right to freedom of information, recently issued a call to Biden to immediately take a stand for press freedom. Citing over 880 aggressions towards the press by President Donald Trump in 2020 alone, the organization demands that Biden “reverse the extensive damage done to the U.S.’s press freedom record during Donald Trump’s presidency.”

Reporters Without Borders ranked the U.S. number 45 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index out of 180 countries. The organization keeps track of yearly stats for freedom violations, journalists attacked and arrested, and more to raise awareness and protect the right to free press. Their website says Trump and his associates “have demonstrated the United States is no longer a champion of press freedom at home or abroad.”

“It’s no secret that Trump used the press as a political foil,” School of Communications Director Ed Carter said. He described how Trump successfully convinced people to believe anything said against him was biased and wrong. According to Carter, this meant when the media pointed out flaws or mistakes, Trump supporters wouldn’t believe it.

“We rely on journalists to monitor the use of government power. It’s a very important thing that has been suppressed by Trump,” Carter said. He said Trump painted journalists as the public enemy and promoted outrage and conflict, forcing the media to focus on following his tweets and announcements rather than looking at long-term issues like racism, the pandemic and more.

These actions took away the full function of the press, Carter said, and he hopes with Biden trust can be regained and the role of journalism can slowly be restored.

Carter said other countries have already followed Trump’s lead in demonizing the press. “There were already problems with public distrust and reporters, but he exploited it and made it worse.”

Carter said he hopes there will be global improvement as Biden and local leaders emphasize long term interests and rebuild the reputation of the free press rather than further eroding it.

Communications professor Joel Campbell said he hopes on both an international and national scale, there will be an increased understanding of the free press’s role in democracy.

“I am hoping that the nation returns to the idea that free press is important and also that it is important in other democracies and countries in the world,” Campbell said.

Campbell said because of Trump’s harsh treatment of the press, there is less trust in the media and more restricted access to public information. As someone who is passionate about freedom of information, Campbell said he hopes the way things are run will improve through Biden respecting the press and reinstating consistent White House press conferences and briefings.

Communications studies major Hannah Koford has been conducting research for the communications department at BYU. She researches scholarly, legal and journalistic discussion and analysis of current issues between journalism and freedom of speech. She is an author for a blog focusing on freedom of journalism.

“I really would like to believe there will be influence that people can regain the trust in the media that they have lost in the past few years,” she said.

Preceding the election, Koford researched the candidates’ views and treatment of the press during their campaigns. Her research found while both have had rocky relationships with the press, Biden expressed more respect and understanding for the role of free press in a democracy.

Biden denounced Trump’s attacks on journalism while also refusing to answer questions from the press and denying local media outlets access.

Trump told America the press should not be trusted through his many tweets that demonized the mainstream media and accused companies of fake news, according to Koford’s research.

Koford said overall, the way Biden talks about the press is “night and day” from Trump. She said she thinks Biden’s promise to restore the relationship with the press is amazing because “it is of utmost importance to have a president who values that.”

“It’s important for the president to respect the press because it shows he values transparency and open access to information and shows he values democracy,” Koford said. Without the free press, it is not possible to have a democracy because democracy cannot exist without the “absolutely essential” check on government the press provides.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email