“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States
This quote from Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of our nation, shows that he truly appreciated the value of journalism in maintaining a free society. In fact, it appears he valued it higher than government itself.
Role of Journalism in Democracy
It is our belief that the role of journalism in a democracy is to:
- report on those in power through what we call watchdog journalism;
- report on the public’s needs, impressions, and wants;
- provide reassurance and even panic prevention by shedding light on critical events.
The Pew Research Journalism Project provides a nice summation of both the purpose and the current challenges in an article titled A New Journalism for Democracy in a New Age. We love its conclusion: “Freedom and democracy depend upon individuals who refuse to give up their belief that the free flow of timely, truthful information is what has made freedom, self-government and human dignity possible.”
Gatekeepers vs. Referees
The 2005 article also has an important point to make about journalists becoming “referees rather than gatekeepers” for information. They note that the fences are already down with many, many other sources of information available. They were quite prescient in that now, some nine years later, there are substantially more sources of information available to anyone with a smartphone.
From another perspective, one need only look at the challenges of journalists in nations where democracy is either in its infancy or does not exist at all. In those nations—from Cuba to Russia and extending across continents—journalists face the very real threat of death for reporting what those in government do not want reported.
The World Movement for Democracy provides a short summary of the broad range of issues affecting journalists in a post titled “The Role of Journalists in Democratic Development.” This list includes a huge array of issues that we largely take for granted in the United States, from intimidation and violence to bribery and just trying to eke out a living from very low pay.
Objective Reporting or Advocacy Journalism
“Journalists believe that objective journalism provides facts and information to citizens who can then make their own judgment.” This is from Michael Schudson, professor of journalism at Columbia University, in his article titled “Reluctant Stewards: Journalism in a Democratic Society” in the Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Schudson further states that this mindset has often morphed into advocacy journalism, where reporters attempt to demonstrate that they “know best” regarding what you should think and act upon. He then tracks the development of traditional journalism, which he estimates is only about a century old. Schudson’s final key conclusion is that “Pluralism, pragmatism, and decentralized invention may do better at stewarding democracy than a coherent philosophy of moral guardianship ever could.” He further states that “fact-based accountability news is the essential food supply of democracy.”
Citizen Watchdog Journalism
In our viewpoint he is really pointing to the decentralized and pragmatic emergence of citizen watchdog journalism. This movement has been growing, due in part to the Internet’s ability to get the news out and do so in an extremely cost effective and rapid manner. It has also been growing because there are important areas that mainstream news outlets can no longer cover or where they have reduced their coverage. This includes our own statehouse reporting.
This does place into perspective what so many of us have come to believe is the normal of traditional journalism: newspaper, television, and even radio. We need to be reminded that the golden age of radio lasted about three decades. What we call newspaper journalism has been in place roughly a century and began its decline a couple of decades ago. Television continues strong in viewership, but its news reporting has substantially declined.
We also forget that Thomas Paine and his pamphleteering helped lead the way to the Revolutionary War. At the time his approach to getting the word out was pretty revolutionary, so to speak. Much of this type of revolutionary reporting is happening today. It is happening through citizen journalists, watchdog groups like our own, and even social media—think of the photo of the plane landing in the Hudson River that was first posted on Twitter.
You Can Help
Citizen journalism begins with you, the citizen. It can be as simple as your choices regarding news sources. Advertisers and funding will move with the readers.
If you see this growing threat to “fact-based accountability news” which is “the essential food supply of democracy” as the serious matter we believe it is, now is the time to step forward and make a difference.