How Freedom of the Press Works

Threats to American Press Freedom
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with reporters outside the White House on Oct. 7, 2017. During the exchange, he called NBC News, 'Fake News' after it reported tension between Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. ALEX EDELMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Americans are used to rancorous political debates and the whipsaw struggles between journalists, politicians and other powerbrokers. The actions of people in power are often seen as the biggest threats to press freedom. But in reality, it is financial pressure.

"In the United States, our most severe restrictions on free press come from the economic environment," Repucci says. "As advertising revenues have plummeted, news companies increasingly struggle to conduct in-depth investigations and stay afloat, particular at the local level." Not to mention, if a reporter angers an advertiser, the paper could potentially lose a revenue source. Repeat that process often enough and the paper may not have the money to continue publication.

The end result? Americans still have access to lots of differing viewpoints in the media, but many of these outlets are now owned by large corporations that may massage the news to their liking.

Business interests aren't the only entities that try to control the news — the government, of course, takes aim at reporters, too. "Most prominently, there has been increased pressure on journalists to reveal the identity of their sources when they receive leaked information," says Repucci. "The Obama administration brought more criminal cases against alleged leakers than all previous administrations combined."

The presidency of Donald Trump has taken press hostility to new levels, whether it involves Trump verbally sparring with reporters, calling an unflattering report "fake news" or barring reporters he doesn't like from attending press conferences.

"President Trump's open criticism of the press is a very troubling development," Repucci says. "In a democracy, the press enables the public to learn of abuses of power so that they can hold their leaders to account. President Trump's hostility groundlessly shakes the public's faith in the media, which harms their ability to know what the facts are."

Reporters Without Borders publishes an annual World Press Freedom Index, ranking 180 countries based on how they treat journalists and if the environment for the press is genuinely free.

"The U.S. ranks 43 out of 180 countries based on data collected in 2016. The previous year, the U.S. had ranked 41 out of 180 countries. So, there is a clear downward trend," says Margaux Ewen, the North American advocacy and communications director for Reporters Without Borders. The reason for the lowered ranking? President Obama's flimsy record on press freedom and information access didn't help, and President Trump's verbal attacks on journalists has likely further damaged America's freedom rating [source: Buncombe].

Anyone who is concerned about the state of media in America can use a handy online tool called the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, which documents incidents of journalists who are arrested and harassed while attempting to do their jobs. One example: During the protests surrounding the building of the North Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, police arrested numerous reporters on charges such as trespassing and rioting.