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When you scroll through your daily news source, chances are, you’re not thinking about what reporters had to do in order to bring you those words on the screen, on the paper or over the air. But each and every story stems from a complex process, starting with gaining access to public, city, county, state and federal information.

Once published, this information shapes public opinion and drives policy while providing feedback to legislators. It holds governments accountable and even promotes a strong economy. The ability to obtain this information is not only vital, it’s a constitutional right.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

A free press is vital to a healthy nation on all levels, but perhaps even more so in rural America. The information passing through our nation’s media outlets inevitably influences the trade policies and legislation that have a direct impact on our livelihoods.

A Brief History

Thomas Jefferson once said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

James Madison referred to the freedom of the press as “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”

In fact, the American press is often referred to as the fourth estate. While the government consists of the legislative, judicial and executive branches, a free press unofficially serves as a fourth branch, ultimately created to hold the other three accountable.

It’s clear that the Founding Fathers determined that a free press was important enough to build into the foundation of our newly formed nation. It remains just as critical to our society now, over 250 years later. A free press protects our democracy as a whole and our livelihoods as individuals.

Unfortunately, in the United States, as well as globally, press freedoms are beginning to wane.

It’s Declining

Each year, Reporters Without Borders, an international non-profit organization used by diplomats and international entities such as the United Nations and the World Bank, releases a press freedom index. Using a strict methodology of qualitative analysis combined with quantitative data, each compiled by journalists in 180 countries, the report ranks each nation according to the level of information journalists are able to freely and easily access. Reporters Without Borders refers to the report as “a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region.”

The report has found that in the last several years, press freedom has been on a steady decline in the United States and around the world. In 2002, the first year the index was published, the United States ranked 17th. Less than 15 years later, in 2016, the United States ranked 41st. By 2021, we’ve slipped down to 44th.

A Free Press Means a Strong Economy

There is clearly cause for alarm as the United States continues to drop down on the Press Freedom Index, but one particular concern for those of us in rural America stems from the evidence that nations with a free press have stronger economies. Journalism professionals, professors and academics all have seen first-hand that press freedom contributed economic growth and high standards of living.

In the foreword of World Bank Institute’s “The Right to Tell,” Roumeen Islam, Economic Advisor for the Infrastructure Global Practice explains that everything from small-scale markets such as vegetable trading in Indonesia to massive markets like global foreign currency and capital markets in New York are stronger and work better because of a free press. Especially as the media can quickly facilitate trade, transmit ideas and innovation across boundaries.

The Critical Work of Telling Rural America’s Stories

The importance of trade to America’s agricultural producers cannot be understated. As the U.S. closes in on near record-setting ag exports, a free and open press will continue to remain vital.

As press freedom around the world continues to wane, our work as marketers becomes absolutely crucial. We work alongside the media, called to make sure the voices of rural Americans and agri-businesses are not only heard, but are accurately represented. The work we do serves to inform our fellow citizens about the importance of agriculture, but also speaks directly to the leaders who write the policy that impacts the livelihood of those who feed the world.

The Role of Rural Marketers

The laws and policies that dictate press freedoms may fluctuate year after year, but because this work is so critical, it’s vital that we never stop telling these stories, no matter what. Returning to the words of the Founding Fathers, let’s look to Benjamin Franklin who said “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” Whether you use blogs, email marketing campaigns, e-books, white papers, podcasts, webinars or even the old school newspapers, what’s truly important is being ever persistent in telling the stories of rural America.