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With the media in decline, will a memorial to fallen journalists help restore trust?

Amid all the news of 2022, you may have missed this big story: Congress agreed to, and the president signed off on, the creation of a Fallen Journalists Memorial to be built in the nation’s capital.

The memorial will honor the men and women, domestic and foreign, who have given their lives so you can know what is going on in the world. It comes amid massive media layoffs.

Yes, the fifth estate is getting real estate not far from the National Mall, a place of monuments honoring presidents and defenders of American freedom. This will be the first tribute to civilian journalists who lost their lives practicing their craft.

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How did it happen?

The project was launched in the days following the first anniversary of the deadliest attack on journalists in U.S. history when a gunman stormed the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., in 2018, killing five staff members. Former Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the board of the Tribune Media Group, spearheaded an effort to get bills introduced in the House and Senate, which passed and were signed into law in December 2020.

What does it mean to have a memorial to fallen journalists?

First, expect controversy. The press has had a bumpy ride for many years, most notably during the Trump administration. The media has suffered the same lack of confidence as many institutions of late, with the most recent data suggesting that just 7 percent of Americans have “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media, and that 27 percent have “a fair amount.” Deep partisanship is reflected in Americans’ opinions of news.

The memorial could play a role in diminishing some of that division. For one, it focuses the mind on the many lives lost over decades by people simply trying to do their jobs to inform us. According to the project’s supporters, some 1,300 journalists have been killed around the world over the past 25 years. Last year alone, at least 67 journalists lost their lives covering the news, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Of course, all that raises the obvious question: “Who is a journalist?” In a world of digital media, citizen reporting, drone newsgathering and freelancing, it’s sometimes hard to identify those with press badges. But that effort only underscores the importance of singling out those who use their photography, notepads, iPhones and cameras in difficult and deadly places to find out what is happening. And more often than we realize, the deadly places are here in the United States.

A gunman murdered Virginia television reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward during a live broadcast. Reporter Charnice Milton was shot to death as she left an assignment in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood suffering a rampage of gun crimes. New Orleans TV news anchor Nancy Parker died in a plane crash while covering a trailblazing African American stunt pilot. The list goes on.

The building of a monument to fallen journalists has the obvious benefit of reminding us that freedom of information is a basic tenet of a democracy and that without news, we would be in the dark and nobody would be holding the powerful accountable.  Information is the oxygen with which free societies breathe.

But that won’t stop debates over the meaning and purpose of media — who and how facts are determined and reported. And we should welcome that discussion. There are serious challenges facing journalism today, from the role of artificial intelligence to the basic security needs of correspondents and producers. 

We have yet to sort out the best business model for journalism today — is it paywalls or firewalls, subscriptions, ads or free access? In that category should be a vibrant debate over the role of public television in a world of streaming services. We need to talk about “fake news,” and disinformation, misinformation or no information, news deserts, digital divides and the steep costs of internet service, to mention a few areas for attention.

And it is vital for a democracy that we examine the civic roles and responsibilities of journalists and how best to train future reporters to think and write clearly, to analyze, to check their own biases, to listen, investigate and resist the temptation to make themselves the news.

A memorial that honors fallen journalists will force us to confront censorship and crackdowns, cable chatter, opinions blurred into news, fact-checking, gatekeeping and the basics of what it takes to be an independent journalist in a world of pandemics, wars, climate change, food insecurity and hyper partisanship.

It is high time we had a national, even international, conversation about journalism as we honor those who have fallen doing the necessary work of covering news.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. undersecretary for public diplomacy and currently the Edward R. Murrow professor of practice at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.