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The Media's Role in a Democracy

In a democracy the media ensures the exchange of ideas, opinions, and information. The media is independent of the government, and can act as the people's watchdog.

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Drawn illustration of people working in the media

The media's role in a democracy

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The Fourth Estate

In English the media is often referred to as the fourth estate. This phrase refers to the three estates that existed in the British parliament in the 1800s: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. In this system the media was considered an unofficial fourth estate: reporting on what was going on in parliament and putting important issues on the agenda. In other countries, for example in Norway, the media is described as the fourth power, but this term is not widely used in English.

Separation of powers

In a democracy power is divided between different branches of government. This is to prevent any one person, or group of people, from becoming so powerful that they can abuse their power. It was the 18th century French Enlightenment philosopher Charles Montesquieu who first suggested the system of separation of powers. He said: “all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. By this he meant that people who have a lot of power will abuse it, unless there are checks and safeguards to prevent this abuse. When Montesquieu wrote this, it was common for countries to have a sovereign king or emperor.

The United States was the first country to try separation of powers when they gained independence from Great Britain. They created three branches of government: A legislative branch which has the power to make laws and control the country’s budget; an executive branch, which does the day-to-day running of the country; and a judiciary branch, which ensures that the laws are upheld. This system became a model for democracies around the world, including Norway's democracy.

Illustration showing how power is distributed in the United States between the three branches of government.

The Branches of the United States government

The people's watchdog

The media functions as the people's watchdog by reporting on the work that is done by each of the three branches of government. This is information that people need about how their country is run, how well the justice system works, what new laws are made and so on. The information people get from the media helps them decide how to vote in elections, if they are going to participate in protests, if they are going to write a blog or letter to the editor, or if they are happy with the way the country is run. A free media is important to ensure freedom of expression for the citizens. This makes the media an essential part of a functioning democracy.

The media also reports on issues that people care about and ensures that these issues are dealt with by the government. If a law is unfair the media can bring to light how it affects people. If regulations are too weak to prevent pollution the media can describe what is happening to the environment. If people do not want wind farms in their neighbourhood the media can explain why. If hospitals are understaffed and underfunded the media can interview doctors, nurses, and patients about how this affects people’s health. By covering important issues, the media sets the agenda for what the government must focus on.

A free press

If the media is to fulfill its role as the people's watchdog it is essential that it is free to report the facts. The media should be free from undue influence from the government, from political organisations, and from pressure groups. It should not change the stories that are reported on the basis of financial pressure. The media should be independent and objective.

In reality we see that many politicians find it hard to accept that the media is free to write whatever they want. The limits that politicians can place on the media is under constant debate. We also see that most of the media is either reliant on government funding or owned by large corporations. While the ideal is an entirely free press, the reality is that the media experiences pressure all the time.

Faith in the media

Today faith in the media is very low. A survey carried out by the European Commission in 2019 showed that only 15% of respondents in the UK tended to trust the printed press. In the USA a 2019 Gallup poll showed that 15% of Republicans said they had a great deal of, or a fair amount of, faith in the media. The number was 69% for Democrats and 36% for Independents.

There are many reasons why faith in the media is so low. Click on the box below to find out more about this topic.

Why faith in the media is so low:
  • Much of the mass media is owned by a small number of business conglomerates. These conglomerates are not primarily designed to ensure a free and objective media, instead they are devoted to making money. If, for example, politicians propose measures that may affect the business negatively, for example by raising taxes, or bringing in new regulations, news reports may be made to discredit these proposals. It is also easy for people to suspect that the media will sacrifice the truth to design a story that sells well to ensure as much income as possible for the owners.
  • Most news outlets depend on advertising. Fear of losing income from advertising may prevent the media from reporting unpopular stories. Dramatic and entertaining stories bring in more viewers, which in turn generates more income from advertising. A lot of news stories are important without being very entertaining. These stories may go unreported.
  • People get information from numerous sources. These sources often contradict each other in some ways. This makes people unsure of what to believe.
  • Fake news is something people have become very aware of in recent years. They distrust the media’s willingness or ability to separate fact from fiction.
  • News sites use clickbait to get people to click on their stories. User traffic generates income from advertising for the sites. When people feel that what was promised in the headline is very far from the actual story, they may feel that the entire news site is deceitful and cannot be trusted.
  • In the USA and the UK, it is relatively common for newspapers or news broadcasters to choose a political side and pledge allegiance to a political party, or a political philosophy. This can make people doubt that reporting is being done fairly as it seems likely that there will be a bias against people who hold opposing political views.
  • Social media has become an important news source. Sensational images, videos and stories are shared. There is no editorial responsibility or fact-checking done, other than what readers do themselves. The mainstream media may pick up these unsubstantiated stories, or they may report something that is different than what people read on social media. Either way this contributes to making people unsure about what is true.
  • Propaganda is another problem. Political parties and candidates for office use social media, commercials, and ads to promote themselves and discredit their opposition. They also purchase information about voters to create targeted advertising. Exposure to propaganda may make people less able to distinguish fact from fiction, and it may make them more suspicious of what mainstream media reports.
Dog looks through holes in newspaper called Daily Dog. Photo that has been altered.

Is the media still the people’s watchdog?

If people do not trust the media, they will miss important information about how their country is run. This means that when they participate in an election they may vote against their own interest. They may vote for people who stand for things they don’t agree with and didn’t want to vote for. They may miss important information that could make their lives better, for example during the Covid-19 pandemic when many people doubted advice given by the authorities.

When people do not trust the media it is easier for politicians or other officials who have been caught doing wrong to dismiss the reports as “fake news” or “media persecution”. They can avoid the consequences of wrongdoing by claiming the stories are fake, and they can avoid taking responsibility for what they have done for as long as people trust them more than they trust the media.

We also need the media to report stories from abroad accurately. When we hear about hunger in another part of the world, we may want to help. A conflict between two countries far away from us may become important if our country is asked to participate by sending weapons or soldiers, or being part of peace negotiations. If conditions are bad in a refugee camp, we may want to get involved to help the refugees receive more humane treatment, or pressure the authorities in our country to offer them a safe haven. If our hamburgers come from farms that are established by burning down rainforests, we can only make different choices if we know the facts. If products contain substances that cause allergies we can avoid those products if we have been informed. If our clothes and shoes are made using slave labour, or child labour, we can boycott the manufacturers until they change their business strategy, but only if we have access to that information. If a serious accident has happened, for example an explosion at a nuclear power plant, that can be significant for us in a number of ways, one being that nuclear pollution may drift across our border.

If the media does not report on stories accurately, people who need help may never get it. Conflict may develop into wars. Pollution may reach populated areas and cause harm. Products that are harmful for the environment or for users may be sold on the open market.

Today we have more access to news and information than ever before. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate opinion from fact, and propaganda from truth. However, there are still many media outlets whose stated goal is to be fair and objective, and who hire ethical and diligent journalists. By reading, watching, or listening to media that focuses on accuracy and objectivity, and by demanding that laws and guidelines are established to ensure quality journalism and stop lies and propaganda, we can ensure that the media continues to act as our watchdog.

Sources:

Brenan, M., 2019, Americans' Trust in Mass Media Edges Down to 41%,Gallup. retrieved from: Gallup's webpage

Gill, K., 2020, What is the Fourth Estate?, ThoughtCo. Retrieved from: ThoughtCo website.

Ingram, M., 2018, Most Americans say they have lost trust in the media, Columbia, Journalism Review, retrieved from: Columbia Journalism Review's webpage.

Statista, 2020, Share of respondents who tended to trust the written press in the European Union (EU 28) countries in 2019, retrieved from: Statista's webpage.





Sist oppdatert 29.09.2020
Skrevet av Tone Hesjedal

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