In a world without journalism, you might know tomorrow’s weather forecast, but not why the climate is heating up. In a world without journalism, you might know who’s running for mayor, but not what they really stand for. In a world without journalism, you might know of government or corporate wrongdoing, but not how to bring it to light.

In a world without journalism, you would be vulnerable to manipulation, and have no way of even knowing, much less fighting back.

On this, the 30th World Press Freedom Day, we’d like to ask you to imagine what daily life would be like without independent-minded journalism that brings context to the swirl of events, that brings malfeasance to light – and that holds the powerful to account.

Sadly, that request is no mere thought exercise. Freedom of the press is under pressure on many fronts across the globe: from government repression and political turmoil, from changing economics and from technological advances. In some countries, only the façade of a free press remains. In others, even that façade has collapsed.

A record 28 countries scored the lowest ranking of a “very serious situation” in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the most prominent member of that unhappy group, ranking 155th out of 180 countries. And that was based on Russia’s actions before it had fully rolled out its wartime repression of press freedom, before the Putin regime wrongfully imprisoned Russian journalists and before the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich.

Worldwide, 548 journalists and 22 media workers are currently imprisoned, according to Reporters Without Borders, a more than 50-per-cent increase over 2022. Since the start of this year, one media worker and six journalists have been killed.

Authoritarian crackdowns in Russia and elsewhere are an obvious assault on press freedom, and thankfully foreign to Canada.

But there are more subtle pressures that threaten to erode the foundation of a free press – and this country is far from immune.

Two decades ago, Canada was ranked fifth by Reporters Without Borders; by 2022, we had tumbled to 19th.

Political polarization, and the mistrust in journalism that it incubates, is a growing peril and part of the reason that Canada’s press freedom ranking has deteriorated. The cry of fake news or, more lately, misinformation has been weaponized against news outlets that don’t demonstrate sufficient deference to partisan sensitivities.

On the flip side, the rise of explicitly partisan outlets is the antithesis of journalism: they seek to reinforce preconceptions and prejudices, and to extinguish curiosity and doubt.

This is not a plea for sympathy for journalists (a commodity in admittedly short supply), but rather for the mission of journalism – to describe events in the most accurate way they can be described, to uncover the truth as best it can be uncovered. It’s a messy business, and journalists never execute that mission perfectly. But the ambition, repeated each day, is what distinguishes journalism from partisan propaganda.

That mission is more important than ever in a digital environment where social media inflames divisions and speeds the spread of propaganda, and where governments hostile to democracies use those tools for nefarious ends.

Less malevolent but just as corrosive is the fast-changing economics of the news business. Scores of smaller publications have been shuttered or gutted as advertising dollars have migrated en masse to the digital platforms of Big Tech. All private-sector newsrooms have had to face the reality that the 20th-century business model has disappeared for good. The good news is that paying news consumers, as never before, are becoming the economic foundation of journalism. The bad news is that there are not nearly enough of them.

Lurking around the corner is an even bigger potential disruption: artificial intelligence. Today’s deep fakes are just the opening act of a technology that could soon gain the power to manufacture reality. How can the average citizen possibly sift through, and see through, those lies?

The answer is – journalism, and a joint dedication to the truth by those who write and broadcast the news, and by those who read and watch it.

The Globe and Mail, May 3, 2023