Earlier this fall, the publisher of The New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger, gave a talk to students at Brown University entitled “The Growing Threat to Journalism Around the World.” His message emphasized the role of the free press as a foundation to a healthy and informed democracy by presenting articles and investigations that seek the truth, help people understand the world and “shine a light outward.”

Sulzberger told the students that the United States has been the world’s greatest champion of the free press, doing more than any other country to popularize the idea of free expression. He added that our government has served as a “critical safety net:” defending free expression and the journalists who expose uncomfortable truths and hold power to account. He also admitted that the media, “being a human enterprise” isn’t perfect, makes mistakes and has blind spots.

In detail, Sulzberger outlined the dangerous and growing pressure on journalists from worldwide attacks on journalism, describing “an assault on the public’s right to know, on core democratic values, on the concept of truth itself.” He concluded his talk by saying that it’s time for every one of us to fight for those ideals again.

As Atlanta INtown celebrates 25th anniversary this month – two and a half decades of informing all of us who live and work in the Atlanta region – I want to thank its longtime editor, Collin Kelley, for giving me the opportunity to write this column about the environment for the past four years. On behalf of local neighborhood papers and national publications, we must demand continued freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as granted by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In my career as an environmental advocate, I have learned the critical importance of an independent and informed media in achieving results that protect public health, communities and the natural environment. When our elected officials and government agencies fail to do their jobs to safeguard us from the impacts of dirty air, contaminated water and spoiled land, citizens often have no other place to turn than the press to shine a light on serious problems.

Without the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s constant coverage, in the 1990s, of the pollution in the Chattahoochee River and Atlanta’s third-world sewage system, I am confident that the matter would not have been largely resolved as quickly or effectively as it has been. AJC environmental reporter Charles Seabrook, followed by reporter Stacy Shelton, presented information that helped their readers and enlightened decision-makers understand the gravity of the situation and the threats posed to public health and local economic prosperity; they could no longer look the other way. (See my October column to learn more about this story.)

Thanks to hard-working journalists in print, radio, television and now on social media, we have a better understanding of the world around us. They uncover the inequities in our society, corruption, and activities that threaten our families and communities. Their independence is fundamental to democracy and must be defended at all costs.

You may have read recently about air emissions of a cancer-causing compound called ethylene oxide from Sterigenics, a medical sterilization company with a facility in Cobb County. Concerned (and sick) citizens and, notably, the media outlet Health Care News – not the state environmental agency charged with administering clean air regulations – brought the issue to public, and ultimately, official attention.

Despite federal reports that warned, beginning two years ago, of potential cancer risks, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) did nothing to advise the people living near the Cobb facility, or a second one in Covington, of potential risks. An EPD spokesperson actually said: “With EPD being a very scientific branch of government, they didn’t recognize a need for public relations.” Seriously?!

When reporters began investigating the story, they learned that other states with facilities emitting ethylene oxide had immediately alerted the public, when the federal reports were issued, and had taken action with required air monitoring and new pollution controls. After reviewing more than 20,000 emails, our local journalists revealed the failure of Georgia air regulators to take action, apparently missing the big picture that EPA considered the risk of this toxin to be many times greater than before and that the public deserved to know.

Once the risk became public, thanks to extensive media attention, Governor Brian Kemp and other officials finally took action. In August, EPD entered into an agreement with Sterigenics to improve emissions controls at its Smyrna plant, beginning the process to stop the pollution. Of course, it should not have taken the efforts of private citizens and the press to achieve this protection. If the media had not reported this story, would the harmful gas still be drifting over our neighborhoods? Undoubtedly.

Accurate, truthful journalists are our guardians. They assemble and verify facts and then work to convey a fair account of their meaning, so that we can make better decisions about our lives. As they guard us, we must guard them.


Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and current board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy whose mission is to build a community of support for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.