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New York Times President, International highlights importance of free press in sustaining democracy

Stephen Dunbar-Johnson speaking on stage in an Ewha Womans University lecture hall. His keynote speech focused on the direct relationship between journalism and democracy in today’s society with an international lens. JENNA ZAZA/THE STATESMAN

“Neither a free press nor democracy can survive without the other,” said the President, International of The New York Times Company Stephen Dunbar-Johnson. “A free press is not a given. It is vulnerable and it needs protection.”

Dunbar-Johnson gave a keynote speech at one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities, Ewha Womans University, on Tuesday, May 21 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. He spoke extensively on the “interplay of trustworthy, independent journalism and democracy,” emphasizing the harsh reality of the “unprecedented attacks” on the rights and legitimacy of the free press.   

Former United States President Donald Trump’s “phrases like ‘fake news’ and ‘an enemy of the people’ are embraced by new leaders around the world to say that the press no longer serves the people and that it is immunized against the facts and the truth,” Dunbar-Johnson said. 

The New York Times Asia bureau used to be located in Hong Kong due to its “vibrant press.” However, China’s crackdown on the region’s democracy led to the criminalization of free speech in 2020. Dunbar-Johnson said it was clear that The New York Times needed their Asia bureau to be located in a country with a dynamic democracy. After analyzing current political environments and Reporters Without Borders’ free press rating reports, Dunbar-Johnson and The New York Times believe that South Korea was and continues to be the best country to situate their Asia headquarters. 

“Hong Kong’s democracy and free press staggering should be a reminder that a free press is not a given,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “Korea served #1 in press freedom [compared to other countries in the Asia region and standard of education was also a priority.”

When the sky darkens in New York, The New York Times’ news stream is passed over to the Korea bureau where the sun is beginning to rise. The stream is then turned over to London and finally back to New York. Dunbar-Johnson explained that it is “important to have a growing team in Asia” to support the newspaper’s 24-hour news cycle. 

In a time where protecting the free press is more crucial than ever before, Dunbar-Johnson recited some of A.G. Sulzberger’s journalistic independence statement. His essay defines journalistic independence as “a willingness to follow the facts even when it contradicts one’s preconceived notions, report on what is actually happening rather than what one wants to happen and adhere to ethical principles by imbuing one’s reporting with “a range of perspectives.” Dunbar-Johnson concluded Sulzberger’s statement by adding “the heart of journalism remains the same. That is to provide impartial news.” 

There have been globally substantial job losses in the journalism field, especially in the U.S. where more than half of newsroom journalists have been lost and approximately 2.5 local news outlets shut down per week in 2023. Dunbar-Johnson explained that technology platforms, which are overrun by conspiracies, clickbait and polarized information, have further “strained the direct relationship between journalists and readers that is essential for trust.” 

“Let me make it clear why journalism is worth fighting for. It keeps leaders honest, markets fair, corruption exposed, explains issues like migration and climate change that threaten society and provides solutions,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “Most importantly it provides a reliable flow of trustworthy information required for democracy.”  

The speech transitioned into an open question-and-answer session, allowing students to interact with Dunbar-Johnson directly. 

When The Statesman raised the question, “You mentioned that in the U.S., our past president ignited this ripple of dismantling a free press. How can student journalists and future journalists work to restore trust in our work and thus progress democracy?” 

“The first step is to vote,” Dunbar-Johnson replied. 

He expanded by explaining that Trump gave license to aristocrats to attack the free press and the fragility of trust in journalism, which takes years to build up and can be destroyed in an instant. 

“But it’s also about the rigor of the work a journalist does [and] the layers of journalism,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “Covering the work properly, asking the right questions, good editing. Keep doing the work and do it to a high standard. There will always be people who say it’s fake [but] you just have to keep doing it.”

The internet allowed journalism to prosper with its multimedia capabilities to make the news more compelling for audiences and more disseminated than it ever could have been in the analog age. However, it didn’t come without its drawbacks, since it also allowed for polarization and deeply entrenched echo chambers to form. “It’s not black and white or two sides of the coin,” Dunbar-Johnson said. 

Regarding a question raised by an international student about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine in the Middle East, Dunbar-Johnson said it is up to the judgment of the newsroom to label it as a genocide or not. 

“Giving [the conflict] a label makes it emotive. What is relevant is giving an accurate portrayal of what is happening and bearing witness to the truth,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “You can read [our coverage] and then make up your own mind.”

Dunbar-Johnson then went on to say, “everyone has a different opinion on this and we have to step back and focus on simply reporting the facts. Personally I think our coverage is not without reproach and we have gotten it wrong and publicly corrected it. But I think our coverage of the war in Gaza has been really good whether you call it genocide or not.”

As the lecture came to an end, Dunbar-Johnson expressed his gratitude for speaking at Ewha Womens University and closed with hopeful remarks.

“It’s a really exciting time to be a female journalist today,” Dunbar-Johnson said. “It’s dangerous but it’s exciting. The future is yours. I wish you all the best.”

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About the Contributor
Jenna Zaza
Jenna Zaza, Arts & Culture Editor
Jenna Zaza is The Statesman's Arts and Culture Editor. She is a second-year journalism major with a minor in Korean studies and on the fast-track MBA program. When she is not writing, she is probably reading a book with a cup of coffee in hand.
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