April 19, 2017

A coalition of advocacy organizations including the Freedom of the Press Foundation, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Index on Censorship have settled on a name for their forthcoming press freedom website, and a journalist to lead it.

Peter Sterne, who has covered digital and print media for Politico since 2014, will spearhead U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a site dedicated to compiling and maintaining a database of press freedom incidents in the United States. Friday is his last day at Politico.

Sterne, who will begin as a reporter for the Freedom of the Press Foundation on May 1, will collect information on journalist arrests, border stops, searches and seizures, leak prosecutions and subpoenas demanding that reporters testify on their confidential sources. It is hoped this data will then be cited in official reports, news stories, legal briefs and even congressional testimony, Sterne said.

He’ll also be writing feature stories and trend pieces on press freedom issues as the opportunities arise.

“When I heard about the Freedom of the Press Foundation job and this idea of building this website to collect this data that could be used by so many people, I was really attracted to that idea,” Sterne said. “And I felt like it was a good way to use my journalism skills but do something outside of journalism.”

Sterne has some experience with maintaining data. As a student at Columbia University, he founded Who Pays Interns, a blog on Tumblr that tracks whether magazines and websites pay their interns. The blog has over 100 entries, many of which list the exact amount each news organization pays. Sterne has also covered press freedom and litigation for Politico, including pieces on the Espionage Act and the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker trial.

Organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists keep data on journalists killed and imprisoned around the world, but there’s no authoritative record for press freedom incidents in the United States, Sterne said. With funding from CPJ and support from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker will change that.

“The U.S. is a relatively free country,” Sterne said. “You have very few journalists being murdered or imprisoned without trial, and I think we have some of the strongest press freedom laws on the planet. The threats that journalists face going forward are similar to the threats that they’ve faced for the last decade or so: increased surveillance, journalists being swept up in mass arrests at protests, police and local authorities ignoring reporters’ rights to cover protests and just conflating them with protesters and arresting them even if they have press passes.”

The site’s debut comes as President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric and vague threats of “open[ing] up libel laws” has focused a spotlight on press freedom and funneled donations to organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists. But U.S. Press Freedom Tracker won’t be a partisan site, Sterne said.

“This is a problem that I worry will be exacerbated under Trump because he has so little respect for the media and the First Amendment,” Sterne said. “But by no means is this something that only Trump is doing. [President] Obama famously brought more cases against government leakers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined.”

Sterne’s exit from Politico follows a crumbling of its media desk and a shift away from New York back to Washington, D.C. Tom McGeveran, who co-founded the media and politics outlet Capital New York before it was purchased by Politico, left the site amid a refocusing of the company’s media coverage around politics. Kelsey Sutton, who covered media with Sterne, now covers breaking news for Politico.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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