You don’t have to be a journalist to know that a strong free press, a pillar of a vibrant democracy, is under attack. Newspapers, particularly those that focus on local news, are closing around the country. At the same time, violence and threats aimed at journalists are on the rise. Never in American history has the danger to a free press been greater and with it the well-documented social and economic benefits to individual communities and the country as a whole.

In response, champions of journalism and a free press are joining together under the auspices of the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation to build the first memorial on public land in Washington, D.C., that demonstrates America’s commitment to a free press, and commemorates journalists who sacrificed their lives in service to that ideal both at home and abroad. The idea sprang from the June 28, 2018, attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. A gunman angered by a 2011 column about his conviction for using social media to harass a former high school classmate used a shotgun to end the lives of five of my colleagues.


But the focus is also on journalists such as Nancy Parker, the beloved news anchor at WVUE in New Orleans. She died in a plane crash on Aug. 16, 2019, while working on a story about trailblazing African American stunt pilot Franklin J.P. Augustus. Augustus was also killed.


This fall, the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission voted to recommend that the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation be permitted to locate the memorial in an area adjacent to the National Mall reserved for works of “preeminent and lasting historical significance to the United States.” More approvals are needed, but the successful result of our current work will be a high-profile location befitting a memorial to America’s commitment to a free press and those who died advancing it around the world. In addition to a physical space for commemoration, the memorial will provide ongoing educational programming to remind current and future generations about the risks to a free press, the contributions of journalists to preserving democracy, and the various forms of journalism protected by the First Amendment.  Design work is expected to begin next year.


Make no mistake, a free press is under attack from a variety of sources. Economic changes have hollowed out this nation’s newspapers, posing new challenges for broadcast news and startups to fill the gap. A wave of misinformation spread through social media threatens to undermine the shared understanding of basic truths central to a functioning democracy. So far in 2021, U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented 135 assaults on journalists. It is worse in other countries. At least 30 journalists were killed overseas in 2020, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 21 of them in retaliation for their work.


My support for this project is driven directly by my personal understanding of the risk every journalist faces. The Capital Gazette shooting galvanized for many the risks journalists face because of their profession. Others have died in ways that received less notice nationwide, such as the plane crash that killed Parker or the death of WDSU sports reporter Carley McCord on the way to cover an LSU game eight months earlier. More lost their lives while covering armed conflicts from the front lines around the world. In April, Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui became the 33rd member of the news media to die in Afghanistan since 2018, according to a United Nations study.


Nancy Parker, Carley McCord, my colleagues and others died because they chose to be journalists. This is an important way to recognize the gravity of that choice and the price they paid for it.


Rick Hutzell is former editor of Annapolis’ Capital Gazette and board member of the Fallen Journalist Memorial Foundation.