“If we don’t do it ourselves, who else is going to do it?”
Lynn Walsh, assistant director at the Trusting News Project, asked this question about one of the most important aspects of journalism: defending the First Amendment.
In an SPJ breakout session Sept. 3, Walsh explored ways to defend the First Amendment through lobbying along with Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director at the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education.
According to Cohn, one of the most important parts of lobbying is doing research before approaching any legislator to advocate for or against a bill.
“All you have is your credibility, and you can only lose it once,” Cohn said. “You want to make sure you’re not an exaggerator. If you’re asking people for their time, you want to make sure it’s important.”
For professional lobbyists and journalists alike, the approach can be just as important as the message when trying to persuade a legislator.
“Never ever criticize [legislators] as individuals,” Cohn said. “You can criticize their positions, you can do that as sharply-worded as you want, but never make it personal. I have not met a person yet in my life who has been persuaded by the argument that they’re an ‘a–hole.’”
Journalists also have the unique ability to speak about how potential laws would directly affect their ability to do their job.
“As a journalist, it is powerful to be able to give examples of how things matter, particularly if they’re personal,” Cohn said. “It helps show that these things have real effects. Making personal pitches is a really powerful thing to do.”
According to Walsh, journalists can also appeal directly to the public when advocating for or against legislation that would impact their First Amendment rights.
“If we really want the public and potentially the lawmakers to get on board, you have to relate it to the public,” Walsh said. “Yes, it’s important for journalists to have that freedom, but you have to relate it to what that means for the public. You want to make that personal connection to somehow get the public interested and involved.”
Though there are some organizations that lobby on journalists’ behalf, it is ultimately up to journalists themselves to advocate for press freedom and defend the First Amendment both in the public and the legislature.
“It is under attack and I think it’s been under attack for years, but we’re the people practicing the First Amendment,” Cohn said. “We have a large respect for it and we should. We should step up and defend it. Who else is going to be paying attention and doing it if we’re not doing it ourselves?”