This article was originally published on the Freedom Forum website. The author, Sana Muneer, is a 2022 Free Spirit scholar. Applications for the 2023 Free Spirit competition are open. Apply here.
Chants from a 2018 March for Our Lives protest echoed through the streets of my town, almost drowning out the reporter’s questions. This intense exchange with a Chicago newspaper was my first encounter with the press. Shifting under the watchful eye of the recording camera, I felt the weight of my words as I spoke out against gun violence. I was empowered by this simple act of speaking up without inhibitions, knowing the power my voice carried. Five years later, the momentum of this event carried me to the halls of the Massachusetts State House.
Freedom of the press centers on a journalist’s fundamental right to investigate a cause. It is a principle that is crucial to democracy and essential to human rights and freedom. A free press ensures that the truth behind every story will be honored, a fundamental right that applies to all journalists, including students.
During the 2022 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference, my curiosity about the importance of the First Amendment was sparked as investigative journalist Megan Twohey spoke. I was awestruck as Twohey recounted the months she spent interviewing accusers, deciphering nondisclosure documents and working tirelessly to piece together the complex puzzle of sexual harassment allegations leveled at Harvey Weinstein.
After speaking to Twohey, I came to understand how her New York Times exposé on Weinstein is a perfect example of the First Amendment. I interpret freedom of the press as a journalist using their voice to obtain justice and fight for the overall good of a community. Twohey and her reporting partner, Jodi Kantor, were given critical information on Weinstein and changed the world with the publication of their story, but only after they pushed the boundaries of investigation. Within days of the New York Times story, the #MeToo hashtag went viral, sparking a campaign that called for transparency in the movie and media industries on employee treatment and greater awareness of the prevalence of workplace harassment.
To end her presentation, Twohey emphasized the immense responsibility of handling this case, the difficulty in obtaining justice for Weinstein’s victims, and how she wants to continue bringing issues like these to light — a process only possible with a free press. Twohey and Kantor’s work highlights the critical importance of a free press and the resilience required to persist when seeking out the truth.
In July 2022, a few weeks after the Free Spirit conference, I participated in Boston University’s Summer Journalism Academy. For two eye-opening weeks, I studied journalism and media ethics under journalist Jan Brogan. Under her insightful direction, my fellow journalists and I reported for The Terrier, the student publication of the summer academy.
During the program, I traveled to the state house to witness Boston’s Indigenous population rally for Indigenous Peoples Day to replace Columbus Day. The rally, organized by the Massachusetts Indigenous Legislative Agenda, urged state lawmakers to pass a bill supporting Indigenous rights. Tasked with covering the event, I traversed the state house, knocking on doors in search of answers. I met state Sen. Joanne Comerford, the bill’s sponsor, and I uncovered the inner workings behind the protest and the backstory of the bill. This specific bill had been sitting in the legislature since 2021, but it was up for vote again before the 2022 legislative session ended. The goal of the rally was to raise awareness of the bill. Supporters were able to go inside the state house to lobby state representatives and senators to vote for it. It was thrilling to actively report on issues that marginalized groups faced and seek out answers from politicians concerning a complex, nuanced topic.
In today’s complicated world, it is crucial for the public to remain vigilant of current events and national and global news. By studying journalism in college, I intend to mold myself into a force for democracy, a force that pushes for justice, accountability and transparency within the media.
As a Muslim woman, I empathize with the struggles faced by vulnerable, misunderstood communities. As a future journalist, I aim to amplify the voices of underrepresented racial and minority groups and work toward diversifying the media. I hope to use my craft to expose prejudice and stereotypes and to be a catalyst for greater inclusivity in the news. I can achieve this goal by reporting on current events related to social injustice and marginalized groups as well as reaching out to lawmakers. Without the support and leadership of policymakers in ensuring that a free press exists, the most marginalized and misunderstood parts of our society may be left silenced and devalued.
Sana Muneer represented Illinois at the 2022 Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference. She plans to attend Boston University in fall 2023 and double major in journalism and psychology.