The Freedom (And Responsibility) of Expression
I received the first news of this week’s horrific slaughter of French cartoonists as I sat inside a classroom at...
I received the first news of this week’s horrific slaughter of French cartoonists as I sat inside a classroom at the Graduate School of Journalism at New York’s Columbia University, surrounded by fellow editors. We were gathered as judges for the American Magazine Awards, and the news that colleagues across the ocean would be targeted because of their jobs hit us like a punch to the throat.
When we regained our voices, we judges spent a few minutes talking about freedom of speech in our own jobs, and the obligation each of us has to our audience not only for what we say but also for what we don’t.
Political expression isn’t really central to Outdoor Life’s culture or mission. But I want to talk here, out of solidarity to fellow journalists around the world, about the various constraints that sometimes colors our content.
Overall, I’m immensely proud of what we publish. We do many things clearly and well. We test products transparently and without bias. We have been among the first of our peers to critically examine our wildlife managers, and to hold our leaders to high standards of resource conservation. We have exposed some movements—most recently the efforts to liquidate federal lands in the West—as profit-minded, short-sighted land grabs that are not in the public interest. And we have advocated clearly and well for better access to our public lands.
And I’m not suggesting that Outdoor Life or our sister hook-and-bullet media brands are on the front lines of First Amendment expression. The stories we report are indeed life-and-death matters, but generally for the animals we hunt and fish, not for people or societies.
But we can do better.
For instance, we often refrain from writing critically about gun restrictions, fearing the searing blowback from the gun-rights crowd. We rarely discuss the deleterious effects of “wildlife farming” (surely one of the most laughable of oxymorons) on the wild, unfarmed animals we value so highly. We rarely report how ludicrous or useless a piece of hunting or fishing gear might be, lest we offend an active or potential advertiser. And we do an insufficient job of disclosing when a company takes a writer on an all-expenses-paid trip that results in editorial content.
If the French terrorism reminds us of anything, it’s that words, images, and ideas matter, and that we as editors have an obligation to ensure that we are expressing ourselves clearly, candidly, and completely, out of respect to our audience but also to our profession.