Panelists speak about free speech in the press at Annenberg

Leaders of the news media industry gathered at the “Free Speech through a New Lens: Film, Digital Media and Social Change” panel held at Wallis Annenberg Hall on Monday.

The Washington Post editor Martin Baron (center right) spoke at the panel along with three other media news industry leaders on Monday about free speech in digital media. Emily Smith | Daily Trojan

Panelists included David Linde, chief executive officer of Participant Media; Shabnam Mogharabi, chief executive officer of SoulPancake; Martin Baron, editor of The Washington Post; and Josh Singer, the screenwriter of Spotlight and The Post.

Frederick M. Lawrence, an expert in free expression and hate-crime law, moderated the event.

The conversation focused mainly on the role of news media in democracy, as well as what the First Amendment means in a digital context. Baron said that most other forms of news outlets, such as television and radio news, get their stories from newspaper reporting.

“You find that the stories that we do become the genesis for public conversation more than stories done by anybody else,” Baron said. According to Baron, the goal of newspapers is to provide a forum for public conversations and to elevate that conversation.

Baron acknowledged that the nature of the press has expanded to include media companies and digital platforms.

SoulPancake, a site that creates “uplifting content” such as Kid President, a motivational video series, is one of these new media companies. Mogharabi spoke about the role of the SoulPancake when it comes to censoring user-generated content.

“We tend toward the side of not censoring,” Mogharabi said. “We try to guide it but we definitely do not actively censor unless we’re seeing foul language or threatening language. We don’t want to prevent people from exploring that clash of ideas, even if we disagree with them.”

Singer agreed that free expression is important in the public sphere. He emphasized the importance of the press — especially the local press — in today’s world. According to Singer, if there is no strong local reporting, corruption may go unnoticed.

“The press is so important to keeping our leaders honest,” Singer said. “There is a reason that the fourth estate exists and that is to keep another check on power.”

Lawrence said that a system with neither repression of speech nor censorship may be the best. To him, speech should not be repressed, but there is a moral obligation to respond and counter.

“Doing journalism is an exercise of the rights provided us in the First Amendment,” Baron said.

According to Baron, the First Amendment is not just a set of guiding principles, but a call to action. He said that the principles journalists practice are what have kept him in this profession for over 40 years.

“As journalists, we’re trying to tell the truth, actually,” Baron said. “That’s the purpose. We’re trying to be the expression of the First Amendment in the modern day.”

Citing former president James Madison, Baron said the purpose of the First Amendment is to hold the government accountable by means of an independent entity outside the three branches of government. That entity is the free press, he said.

“So that’s what we’re trying to achieve — to try to tell the truth about what’s happening in our government and our broader society and around the world,” Baron said. “I think that most people in our profession are deeply dedicated to that.”