Commentary: Stewart should know that the life of every journalist matters

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Incumbent Chris Stewart, Representative for Utah's 2nd Congressional District, won the nomination at the Utah Republican Nominating Convention Saturday, April 21, 2018 with 74% of the vote.

The life of every journalist matters, including those murdered for their work and those who are just beginning to learn the craft. An attempt to diminish the life of one journalist affects all who practice, teach and learn the profession.

Rep. Chris Stewart did just that in an appearance on CNN earlier this week, belittling the murder of a U.S. resident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi of The Washington Post. Stewart’s reason for dismissing the brutal murder of an important beacon of press freedom? That Khashoggi’s murderers, the Saudi regime, are allies of the U.S. and that the president casts doubt on the clear conclusions of his own CIA.

Stewart is certainly right on one count: Journalists disappear and are murdered with shocking regularity. So far, 2018 has been a deadly year for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 50 journalists have been killed this year, including four at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland.

Each death is horrific, and each a blow to a free and unfettered press and the democratic ideals that represents and supports. Khashoggi wrote from the U.S. critically about an oppressive regime, and we don’t often have such damning and clear evidence that an allied government is responsible for murder.

Stewart attempted to downplay his comments in an unapologetic statement released through his office. His embrace of the Saudi regime’s violent tactics and defense of President Trump’s tepid response to Khashoggi’s murder not only devalues human life but also signals that journalists and journalism are of little value.

In joining Trump’s dismissal of Khashoggi’s murderers, Stewart reminds journalists that they are not only fighting to regain public trust at one of the most divisive points in American history, but that their press freedoms and pursuits of a democratic voice can be brushed away with a stroke of political whitewashing.

Trust in the news media has been on the decline for a number of years. In 2017, only one-fifth of Americans expressed high levels of trust in news from professional news organizations. In recent years, politicians like Trump have taken daily shots at the press and journalists on Twitter. At the same time, others have taken literal and lethal shots at journalists for doing little more than fulfilling their crucial role as a check on power.

Journalism is a global enterprise, and belittling and dismissing the death of any journalist — wherever they practice their craft, wherever they’re from — affects the global community of journalists. Importantly, that includes journalism students.

Empowered by digital and social media and a bevy of new and evolving tools, and possibly emboldened to express their own dissatisfaction with the direction of the nation, students are returning to journalism. National journalism powerhouses such as Columbia University, the University of Florida, Northwestern University, Syracuse University, and the University of Southern California are experiencing an influx of journalism students.

The University of Utah is no exception. Student enrollment in the Department of Communication’s Journalism Sequence is up threefold since 2014. We’ve added a number of new courses to address student interests in watchdog journalism in the digital age, including social media journalism and data journalism, all of which is supported by the essential foundations of media law, ethics, and history. We’re also reviving an Investigative Journalism course to be led by one of the nation’s top investigative reporters.

What does it say, then, that Stewart, who represents many of these students, dismisses their chosen field and the pursuit of journalism?

Faced with a catalytic moment, Stewart faltered. Provided a chance to uphold the pursuits of present and future journalists as well as their press freedoms and protections under the First Amendment, he failed to communicate to his constituents that they are not only valued but respected and Constitutionally protected.

As a country that is known for its free press, the U.S. and its leaders, like Stewart, should take a strong stand against the killing of Khashoggi and in favor of press freedom and democracy.

Instead, Stewart is on the wrong side of history – embracing Trumpism over Truth.

Shannon McGregor

Shannon McGregor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Communication who’s research is featured prominently in political communication and journalism journals.

Avery Holton

Avery Holton, Ph.D., is a vice president’s clinical and translational scholar and assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Communication.