During spring break, I took the opportunity to visit one of the most historic and political destinations in the U.S. I bypassed the alluring Florida sunshine in favor of a cultural stay in Washington.
As a history student, walking around such a legendary place brought some of my favorite parts of the past to life, landmark by stunning landmark.
Much to my surprise, the place I visited that moved me the most was not the Lincoln Memorial or the White House, but a gargantuan, seven-level interactive museum on Pennsylvania Avenue.
What can only be described as the ultimate mothership of news and journalism history, the Newseum reminded me of all the reasons why I want to pursue a career in journalism. It educated me and tested me, and I left after five hours — feeling exhausted but totally inspired.
The museum is home to real sections of the Berlin Wall and evocative remains of the World Trade Center. It has an open terrace with stunning, unobstructed views of the Capitol building, and a 4-D theater that takes audiences on a journey through some of the most groundbreaking investigative reporting stories of all time. The famous Anchorman exhibit features props and costumes from the 2004 film, and the interactive galleries challenge visitors to create a front page, present a news story in front of the camera and decide upon some of the most controversial reporting decisions in history.
Yet the reason I found Newseum so incredible was not because of its endless, expansive and informative galleries, but because the entire spectacle was, in effect, a moving tribute to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment prohibits the making of laws that breach freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the right to petition and the right to peaceful protest. Newseum’s devotion to these rights is made clear before visitors even walk through the door, as the words of the amendment are carved into the building itself, next to an enormous banner that reads, “NEWSEUM CELEBRATES FREEDOM.”
Having studied various aspects of American history a year abroad, I have learned predominantly about the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th amendments that famously opened the gates of democracy to millions of citizens on the grounds of race and gender. Much less attention has been paid to the importance of the First Amendment, which can be taken for granted on a daily basis in the modern Western world.
As I walked around Newseum, I came across a world map that displayed the proportion of countries that practice the right to free press, those that are partially free and those that are completely censored. I was immediately struck by the utter mass of countries labeled red and yellow, unlike the green that colored in Western countries.
In the split second it took to cast my eyes over this map, I was reminded how comparatively lucky the Western world is to have the right to free press.
In light of recent global news, affecting testimonies to such rights could not be more topical. The Pussy Riot protests in Russia, North Korea’s crimes against humanity report, ongoing turmoil in Syria and Russia’s dark assault against Ukraine show us how even in 2014, natural human rights are being engulfed by wicked tyranny.
Not only are millions of people in the East subjected to violence and oppression each day, but the right of their countries to freely communicate about such disasters is censored.
By sharp contrast, I looked around the gift shop later on and smiled at a fridge magnet that read, “Freedom is blogging in your underwear.” Having the right to express myself freely through my blog and through newspaper columns is part of my identity. It gives me a voice, and a way to interact with the world.
I could not imagine living in a country that did not grant me this right, something I have grown up with and never had to consider being eliminated.
Deciding what makes a story newsworthy must be judged by the concern of social urgency, human rights and democracy. Until censorship has been eliminated, journalists working with the right to free press must celebrate, relish and utilize the tenets of the First Amendment in order to spread awareness of people whose natural human rights continue to be repressed by despotism.