After a sharp rise in 2020, freedom of the press violations have fallen significantly in the United States, but major structural barriers to press freedom persist in this country once considered a model for freedom of expression.
While the mainstream media in the United States generally operate free from government interference, many popular news outlets are owned by a handful of wealthy individuals. In a diverse global media landscape, local news has declined significantly in recent years. A growing interest in partisan media threatens their objectivity, while public confidence in the media has fallen dangerously.
After four years of President Trump constantly denigrating the press, President Biden signaled his administration's desire to see the US reclaim its global status as a model from freedom of expression, thus reinstating regular White House and federal agency press briefings. Despite these efforts, many of the underlying, chronic issues impacting journalists remain unaddressed by the authorities – including the disappearance of local news, the polarisation of the media or the weakening of journalism and democracy caused by digital platforms and social networks.
There is an ongoing debate about reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that social media companies and other internet hosts are not liable for content that third parties post on their platforms. There is a growing push to revisit the landmark Sullivan v. New York Times decision, which largely shields the media from defamation lawsuits. The PRESS Act, a federal shield law aimed at protecting journalists and their sources, was narrowly defeated in 2022. The US government continues to pursue the extradition of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange to face trial on charges related to the publication of leaked classified documents in 2010. Assange remains detained on remand in the UK, impacting both countries’ press freedom records. More than a dozen states and communities in the US have proposed or enacted laws to limit journalists’ access to public spaces, including barring them from legislative meetings and preventing them from recording the police.
Economic constraints drastically impact journalists working in the US, where more than 360 newspapers have closed since 2019 and where the biggest national newspapers continue to lose subscriptions. While some public media outlets, and radio stations in particular, have been able to offset this decline thanks to online subscription models, others have found ways to sustain growth through individual donations. Due to an unpredictable economy caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and shrinking advertising revenue, several major news outlets, including CNN, NBC, Buzzfeed, Vox and The Washington Post, announced waves of layoffs in 2022 and 2023. These economic conditions have affected smaller and local media outlets in particular, whose survival is increasingly threatened.
According to recent studies, there are unprecedented levels of distrust in the American media. The disinformation affecting American society has created an atmosphere where citizens no longer know who to trust. Online harassment, particularly towards women and minorities, is also a serious issue for journalists and can impact their quality of life and safety.
In the United States, in recent years, journalists have had to work in dangerous conditions and have faced an unprecedented climate of animosity and aggression during protests, where unprovoked physical attacks have occurred on clearly identified reporters. There is a troubling pattern of harassment, intimidation and assault on journalists in the field. In September 2022, Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death. Early 2023, a Clark County public administrator, who lost the primary election after German exposed his misconduct while in office, was charged with his murder. At the time of his death, German was working on a follow-up story.