Local news is disappearing across America at an alarming rate. A study released last month by Northwestern University found the United States has lost nearly one-third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its journalists since 2005.
The slow extinction of the local news is stripping away a critical layer of watchdogs who served as a check on the activities of local governments in municipalities across the country. In their absence, citizen journalists have stepped up to continue that vigilance. But these civilian monitors are facing retaliatory attacks by government officials who want to stop them from calling attention to abuses of power.
More than half of U.S. counties have little to no access to a local news source, Northwestern’s study found. Without a reliable source of local news, researchers say residents in these jurisdictions will start to know less about what their local government is doing, causing voter participation to drop and potential corruption to rise.
One analysis found that fewer watchdogs had a harmful effect on democracy. Fewer local news outlets, and thereby fewer watchdogs, ended up costing taxpayers because without any oversight, government salaries start to rise, deficits increase, and borrowing costs jump.
In Texas, for instance, even as the population grew by 50% between 2005 and 2022 (the fastest increase of any state in the country), the state lost 65% of its newspaper journalists. Fortunately, Americans like Justin Pulliam, who lives outside Houston, have stepped up to fill the shoes of those departed journalists.
Pulliam works as a full-time independent journalist covering events traditional media doesn’t typically cover. One of Pulliam’s primary focuses was recording local police officers as they respond to incidents in the community. Pulliam filmed these interactions for the sake of transparency, accountability, and for the safety of all those involved – particularly in Fort Bend County, where officers didn’t wear body cameras until 2022.
Just like professional journalists, Pulliam’s mission is to hold the local government accountable. However, his work sometimes draws the ire of local officials and police. In July 2021, for example, after Pulliam repeatedly criticized Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Eric Fagan instructed deputies to remove Pulliam from a news conference because he wasn’t “media.” Under threat of arrest, Pulliam was forced to stand far away from all the other reporters—too far back to ask questions or record what was said.
A few months later, Pulliam was arrested while attempting to record officers during a welfare check. Pulliam was processed, strip searched, and jailed for allegedly interfering with police. Earlier this year, the case against Justin ended with a hung jury as 5 out of 6 jurors refused to convict.
Retaliating against journalists like Pulliam violates the First Amendment, and many citizen journalists stand alone in the face of retaliation for their reporting. Fortunately, Pulliam partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to sue Fort Bend County and its sheriff’s officers to protect his constitutional rights.
The First Amendment prohibits government officials from retaliating against an individual for exercising their right to free speech. It certainly doesn’t give officials the power to decide who can report the news. At IJ, we’re bringing lawsuits across the country to protect the First Amendment, so Americans like Pulliam can exercise their constitutional right to report on government activities and speak out against abuses of power.
Tell Us About Your Case
The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm. Our mission is to end widespread abuses of government power and secure the constitutional rights that allow all Americans to pursue their dreams. IJ has represented individuals who faced retaliatory code enforcement for public comments they made, were arrested for posting jokes about their local police departments on social media, or had baseless lawsuits filed against them because of their criticisms of government officials. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case. Visit https://ij.org/report-abuse/.
About the Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty that defends the rights of Americans all over the country, including those who want to provide private solutions to a public problem like homelessness. From suing the FBI, to getting people’s property returned to them, to helping rural Georgians save their land from being taken by a private railroad, IJ aims to protect everyday Americans’ civil liberties free of charge. For more information on the Institute for Justice and its work, visit www.ij.org.