While freedom of the press is a right spelled out in the Constitution and upheld by the courts, it is also every single American citizen’s responsibility to foster and protect.
That’s the view of Frank Sesno, Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and a former CNN White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief, who believes that Americans can play a significant role in creating a culture where everyone, not just reporters, is encouraged to ask the tough questions. He argues we must actively engage in a society that highlights injustices, challenges inconsistencies and holds leaders accountable.
The good news, according to Sesno, is that such a culture already exists in the United States. And as long as we continue to question — and to support those who dare to — we will preserve a strong democracy.
I spoke with Sesno about how citizens and journalists can better support such a culture.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
CNN: You’ve said that in order to create a space that encourages journalists to ask the hard questions, we need to foster a “free press culture.” How do you create and support such a culture? And what are some of the defining elements of it?
Frank Sesno: Let me explain what I mean by a “free press culture.” It is a way of thinking and behaving that reflects who we are as a country — our openness, curiosity and sense of accountability. It is a culture that gives license to question, to challenge authority and to convey our ideas and opinions freely. It is baked into our DNA, grounded in a constitution that puts freedom of speech, expression and religion in one place: the First Amendment.
Think of it this way: Every time you challenge the mayor on why the potholes aren’t filled, ask when the leak in the library roof is finally going to get fixed, demand answers from the airline when it loses your bag, advocate for your candidate, criticize the city council, post an opinion about a proposed tax increase or tweet about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, you are participating in a free press culture.
You are expressing yourself and sharing information. You are demanding accountability and questioning. You are engaging in public discourse and debate. You are challenging folks who are in charge, shining a spotlight on something that’s gone wrong or trumpeting your latest cause.
You may not always be popular for doing so, especially if your opinion is contrary or the news you’re delivering is bad. But if you’ve learned that the hamburger meat is contaminated at the supermarket, the surgeon is falling asleep in the middle of his operations, the police chief is a drunk or the mayor is laundering money — your friends and neighbors will want to know what you know. And they won’t care much how you found out.
The freedom to question and challenge, to speak and publish — this core belief in accountability — defines our free press culture.
How can we support it? First, we must understand and appreciate how deeply rooted it is in our way of life. We must acknowledge that it can be noisy and difficult, but we depend on it. And we should recognize that the power of technology — smartphones, social media, digital everything — democratizes and amplifies the experience. We need to defend it as we work to improve it.
Despite constant attacks and allegations of “fake news,” our free press culture has never been more deeply engrained and widely shared. The explosion of media — the good, the bad and the truly fake — means that we now have an even greater stake in this culture and more responsibility to be consumers of quality information. We should ask: Do we know the source of our information? Do we know the agenda behind it? Can we corroborate it someplace else? Can we distinguish fact from opinion, and challenge our own biases in the process?
CNN: In your book, “Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change,” you stress the importance of asking different kinds of questions — from strategic to diagnostic to empathetic. But you also state there are “stupid questions.” What differentiates a smart question from a stupid one?
Sesno: Questions that are built on willful ignorance are stupid. Questions that are hear-yourself-talk exercises in self-importance are stupid. Questions that are premised on information you know to be false or misleading, or on prejudice and intolerance are stupid. Questions that put someone down or have no interest in the answer are stupid. Stupid questions are disconnected from listening. If you don’t listen, you don’t learn.
Smart questions, on the other hand, are motivated by genuine curiosity. They are purposeful, informed and sincere. They are driven by specific outcomes. They can be tough and challenging or empathetic and informational, but smart questions come in bunches, one question building on another in order to dig down and reveal.
CNN: You’ve said in the past that journalists are supposed to take us to places we don’t know. In the context of the current political climate, what does that mean? What sorts of stories should the media be chasing?
Sesno: Journalism should transport us to places that are important, fascinating, unexpected, unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable. Great reporting explains the complexity of what’s happening and introduces us to the people who are shaping events. It embraces the complexity of the human condition and tells a story in a clear and compelling way. Unfortunately, too much of today’s media wallow in the familiar, the repetitious or the simplistic.
What kinds of stories should the media be chasing? More stories that explore and explain and fewer that revolve around opinion and attack. More that connect with people’s lives and fewer that are framed around a who’s-up, who’s-down scorecard kind of reporting. We need more stories that connect decision-making to consequences and humanity.
From the politician’s promise to the corporation’s bottom line, the journalist’s job is to seek the truth and separate spin from reality. That must be a relentless pursuit, especially when those in power are determined to manipulate information, attack critics and assert their own version of reality. But the media must not get lost in the vortex of confrontation and attack.
News organizations should make room for more stories that lead to a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the issues, controversies and trends that affect people’s lives. What does health care look like to a doctor in rural Arkansas? How does a young man with disabilities get to work when the city cuts the transportation budget? Why is the opioid epidemic ravaging so many communities? What is driving identity politics, and where is it being effectively addressed?
We spend too much time inside our bubbles. So, we need stories that take us outside of those bubbles, highlighting people and places, ideas and issues that reflect the true scope and dilemmas of life.
CNN: Right after the election, you wrote in a CNN op-ed: “As we look in the mirror, we need to be honest and acknowledge that one of the greatest failures, committed by voters and media alike, was the failure to ask the right questions insistently or hard enough.” What kinds of questions should journalists be asking in these polarized times?
Sesno: I think the most important question journalists and citizens should be asking now, in front of every issue and assertion, is a very simple one: How do we know? How do we know where the information in an article, a speech, a tweet is coming from? How do we know if an assertion reflects fact or fabrication? How do we know if a story is true? How do we know if the news is real or fake?
When reporters do the job well, they ask those questions repeatedly and convey the answers clearly. They cite and attribute the facts, acknowledge controversy and represent differing sides, identify sources and, if a source speaks only on condition of anonymity, they explain why. They report the ideology or agenda of a source.
But the public has an important role in these polarized times as well. News consumers must accept more responsibility for the information they consume. They must push back on anyone who disparages news just because they don’t like it. If you go to a doctor and she tells you that you have developed diabetes, do you say that’s fake news? Probably not. You may not be happy about the diagnosis, you may decide you want a second opinion, but you don’t just ignore what the doctor told you just because you don’t like it.
Journalists often deliver bad news. And they’re under attack because of it. But that’s their job — to find out what’s wrong, zero in on hypocrisy, reveal lies — because the public needs to know.
Reporters need to keep asking what’s wrong, what doesn’t make sense, what needs to be fixed and, “How do you know?” They need to ask about the future. How we make sense of the public official who denies that climate change is happening when just about every respectable scientist says that reality is otherwise? How are we going to afford health care when it’s getting more expensive as millions are getting older and living longer? As artificial intelligence looms, what will happen to our jobs and our paychecks?
Journalists also should be asking, “What works?” Solutions are news, too, and we could use a little inspiration. New technologies, policies, practices and research redefine the present and suggest the future. Stories about inventions and innovations convey vital information that others can put to good use.
We’ve made phenomenal progress fighting certain types of cancer. New types of seeds can grow in drought-ravaged fields so that hungry children may eat. Digital media have empowered people in some of the most remote places in the world to engage in civic life. Solar energy has plummeted in price while it generates jobs and hope in the fight against climate change. These are important, relevant developments that tell a compelling story of human progress.
CNN: What role can journalists play in building bridges across divided communities?
Sesno: Journalists build bridges by conveying information that leads to understanding and empathy through stories of persistence and struggle, triumph and breakthrough. They build bridges by featuring people from vastly different places and perspectives. A journalist in a community that’s been ravaged by a hurricane builds bridges by telling stories of loss and heroism.
A reporter in a town ripped apart by tragedy builds bridges by telling stories that help people remember and grieve. Journalists build bridges by conveying the experiences of citizens who are struggling to pay for college, to launch a business or to secure health care.
Journalists also build bridges through stories that shock or disturb us — by factually and meticulously revealing wrongdoing, incompetence or hypocrisy. These are different, more difficult bridges but they are vital in keeping us connected to our core values of accountability, honesty and democracy. They are expressions not merely of a free press, but of the larger free press culture that defines us.
Undermine this culture, and we will have a public that is even more suspicious, more fractured, less informed and less engaged. We will see our values erode. Our short, brilliant First Amendment linking freedom of speech, religion and press will be weakened.
This doesn’t mean the media cannot do better. There are endless places where journalism can and should be improved, toned down, smartened up. But blanket attacks on the news media belie a dangerous lack of understanding about our country, our culture and the freedoms that made us great in the first place.