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Fourth of July offers journalists cause to celebrate

Friday, July 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

When I was growing up in St. Louis, the Fourth of July meant one thing: fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks, enough for my father to happily cough up more than $100 after driving my brother and I to a roadside stand just far enough outside the city to be legal. Black Cats, bottle rockets, lady fingers, colored smoke bombs, M-60s and a 21-gun salute as a grand finale that we somehow managed to set off before our suburban neighbors called the police — or, more likely, before they came out to join us. It was the one day of the year on which gun-powdered pyrotechnics were officially sanctioned by my family and largely ignored by law enforcement. On the other 364 days, I was usually told to quit shooting my .22 rifle near private property or to stop building miniature fires in the backyard.  

As an adult settling into a journalism career, the Fourth of July became indistinguishable from any other holiday that meant work and no play. During the last few years as a newspaper reporter, I rarely celebrated the Fourth of July — or Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day — in any meaningful fashion because there was always a story to cover: a parade, a community celebration, a breaking-news fire or murder. Holidays meant more people tuning in to their local media because they had the time to do so, which for me equated to working serious overtime. The 24-hour news cycle used to drive me nuts because I always had to turn down a half-dozen invitations for events that I could have attended under normal circumstances.

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In 2009, however, having put real-world journalism jobs on hold to go back to school, for once I can use the day to visit friends and family, to enjoy barbecues and firework displays. I can also take a moment to consider what the holiday means to my profession.

Like lawyers and police officers, journalists often evoke love-hate reactions from certain segments of the population. We loathe lawyers when we hear about a frivolous lawsuit or a criminal acquitted on a technicality, but we demand to have an attorney present if we’re accused of wrongdoing. We hate cops when they pull us over for speeding or break up a party, but we dial 911 in a panic if our house is being robbed. And we detest journalists when they misquote a source or sensationalize the latest celebrity mishap, but we still want an aggressive media outlet to keep our elected officials in check.

What most people don’t realize is what a hazardous occupation journalism has become, in many ways has always been. Since April of 2003, for example, 295 journalists have been killed in Iraq, according to the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate as quoted in a March news release from the International Federation of Journalists. Sixty-six journalists were killed worldwide in 2008, compared with 93 in 2007 and 100 in 2006, according to a news release from the International Press Institute in Vienna.

What’s really scary is not just the number of journalists killed but how few of their deaths are investigated. I’ve often joked with fellow reporters about “combat pay” with regard to lousy assignments, but the phrase takes on a darker meaning when applied outside the United States. From Pakistan to Mexico to Russia to Sri Lanka, journalists are well aware of the price that sometimes is paid for exposing corruption or criticizing an oppressive regime. 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from producing the NPR-affiliated radio show Global Journalist for the past six months, it’s that journalists in America have it easy. We may earn mediocre pay or worry about the future of our industry in the Internet age, and we’re suffering as much from the economic downturn as any other field. But at least the government isn’t trying to stop us from doing our jobs. 

In Iran, by contrast, 31 journalists are now in jail following the protests overshadowing the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, according to Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Barometer 2009. China has 30 jailed journalists, and Cuba has 24. Two American reporters were recently sentenced to 12 years of hard labor on suspicion of entering North Korea illegally. The list goes on and on.

Can you imagine such actions taking place in the United States? Or the public outcry that would result? In the aftermath of Watergate, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were lauded as heroes, not thrown behind bars.   

My favorite example is Ukraine, where journalists in 2001 won the right to carry guns that would fire rubber bullets following the deaths of several reporters who were investigating the Mafia. I’ve often wondered how Columbians would react if I started packing heat on the job so I could ask questions of city officials with a holstered weapon in plain view. 

Putting aside the ethical and legal implications of such a move, I’ve never felt the need for protection as it relates to my profession. I’ve always been able to write whatever I want without censorship, and I’ve never had to fear for my safety in doing so. Clichéd as it may sound, freedom of the press really does mean something in America, as it has since the country’s inception.

And for that, on this Fourth of July, I’m profoundly grateful. 

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU.


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