Importance of News in Democracy Essay
A free media is considered as the backbone of any true democracy. It is the most important source of information for the masses that on the other hand are charged with the responsibility of voting. Since the voters base decisions on how to vote based on the information received, the media then becomes a very powerful tool in politics. These institutions identify problems in society.
The journalists are always on the lookout for areas of socio political and economic importance with the aim of reporting to the people in order to attract the required responses which may alter the sociopolitical setting of a society.
More importantly, the media is the most vocal watchdog charged with the responsibility of unearthing the evils committed by those who wield power. However it is clear that this power is prone to abuse hence requiring that the media be reasonable so as to maintain democracy. In fact the any democratic society will assume that the media is responsible.
A checklist of the most critical democratic functions of the media reveals a wide range of activities. First is the continuous check of the developments in the sociopolitical arena. Secondly, the media offers an unrivalled public platform for the people to debate issues and express themselves especially with the aim of getting the attention of those in power.
It also offers a chance for the citizens to learn, make choices and participate more in the political process. In doing this they have to persistently resist any interference from outside aimed at invading their independence hence advance own interests.
It is however emerging that these functions are not being fully met. There are concerns that the most powerful media are controlled by a few multinational with both political as well as economic agenda.
News has been slowly transformed from being informative to pure entertainment. More emphasis is now on sex, violence, scandals and celebrity gossip. According to critics, these have little or no value in informing and educating the viewers. This subverts the democratic ideology advanced through such means. Even when issues of politics are covered, it is clear that focus is more on personalities instead of ideology.
In absence of issue based news, the electorate is exposed to skewed political propaganda which not only misinforms them but also makes them cynical and disinterested in politics. In other areas it has been observed that the watchdogs bark at the wrong things. The news coverage of scandals in private lives of celebrities, politicians and other such issues is done in full ignorance of the consequences (Curran, 2005, p99).
The news is now more often than not heightening fear for the wrong things. Minor hazards are often blown out of proportion leading to extra ordinary resources being allocated towards eliminating such hazards. This is done at the expense of more deserving dangers in society which go unnoticed but continue to pose danger to the society. Again, there has been failure in the news to adequately cover wrongs in certain industries.
The tobacco industry is one such industry. Advertisers appear to have put lots of pressure on media to suppress information relating to the hazards of smoking. In addition, some mass media including magazines especially those targeting the women promote dubious health products hence conspiring with manufacturers to swindle billions from consumers.
All these claims have been fairly studied and seen to be largely true. This then necessitates a review of the way democracy works and the power of media in subverting democracy. The social and political outcomes of misinformation by the media are not yet fully exhausted. The outcomes on the democratic process due to commercialization of news are numerous. The development of the society is influenced in many ways. This creates the need to integrate findings from different disciplines to address the problem (Curran, 2005, p99).
The economic factor
Most media channels are privately owned and hence are pure investments requiring sustainable revenues to guarantee returns. For most of them, a greater percentage of revenues are generated through sponsorships and advertisements. This being the case, the newspaper, and TV and radio stations will definitely seek to best satisfy the specific interests of those who guarantee their revenue. These interests however are not in many ways similar to the interest of the viewers, readers and listeners.
The predominant assumption among economists is that a free market benefits that entire society as it gives opportunity for more players meaning that there is higher differentiation and at a competitive price. This reasoning dictates much of the western media policies today.
However, it is also clear that full competition in the market does not always meet the market expectations. Issues of market failure exist. This is as a result of the fact that the free forces of demand and supply do not always maximize welfare. Products such as public goods including healthcare cannot be solely delivered by private firms.
On these note, news delivered by media houses influenced by commercial interests, public interest is only served to the extent to which they coincide with the interests of the advertisers. Consequently, just the same way a public good may not be adequately provided to the public, news contains inadequate quantities of information of public interest. This is probably the most important reason why most countries have maintained public television and radio stations as public obligations are equally important to the state.
The assumption that competition increases diversity and hence expands democracy may only be true in theory. This is so yet numerous policies have been developed to propagate higher competition to ensure that all interests are served.
However, this approach has failed many times. Instead of achieving diversity in the delivery of news to propagate democracy duplication is the norm. Popular programs are simply duplicated across many competing media hence defeating the whole concept of diversity. According to analysts, modest competition is much better in achieving diversity of content in the media as opposed to the cut throat competition advocated for in the west.
When a country has about three television stations each with one channel, then each of these competing stations will be tempted to duplicate the same popular news content in a bid to expand their market share. But if the channels have one owner, then there is a likelihood that each of the channels would seek to offer different content t minimize competition. In this case then, decreased competition is seen to increase diversity.
As mentioned above free press is critical input in any democracy. Even in the early days, early theorists argued that openness and publicity were the most important tools to protect the masses from tyrannical rulership. This made the media earn the title “the fourth estate” another arm of the government providing crucial checks and balances hence ensuring effective governance.
An effective watchdog is important especially in democracies with weak institutions and huge political pressures. When the executive, judiciary and legislative arms of government are subject to corruption, only the media can check any abuse of power. Despite the risks, news in modern democracies has exposed presidents, prime ministers, judges and even legislators.
In fact the watchdogs do not just watch out for corruption but also against some natural disasters. It is claimed that famine does not occur in functional democracies. This is because the media is always ready to fill the news agenda with information concerning the famine hence prompting necessary action towards elimination of the drought. The authorities cannot ignore such information because this would amount to political suicide.
The media also acts as a conduit between the governed and the governors. Through the discussions provided, policies are interrogated to ensure that they best fit the interests of the masses. As a request decision making is seen to incorporate those to be affected and there is improved relations and understanding between the two parties. This aide in the development of a civic culture among the masses which emphasizes on dialogue as opposed to conflict.
Also, the media has become an important tool for poverty reduction as well as national reconciliation and popular empowerment. Issues of poverty reduction do not only entail reallocation of resources from the rich to the poor. It also entails availing information for the poor so that they are better able to participate in a bigger scale in the political as well as social processes. This is based on the understanding that it is difficult for the poor to push for their rights yet they do not even understand them.
If the poor are not informed about the laws and procedures followed in order to obtain their entitlements or remedy what is deprived then it is really difficult to uplift them from the poverty. This is so yet democracy cannot be said to be embedded in a society where the very poor and powerless cannot be heard. News does provide this information to the poor hence encouraging them to take part in public life (Keane, 2005, p215).
In most cases news are structured in such a way as to ensure that they give a voice to the marginalized. When information about poverty gender and ethnic as well as religious discrimination come to the forefront through news, then the entire public is involved in unearthing the vice and bringing up commonly agreeable solutions against social injustices. This way, news can help ease social tensions and conflicts and also promote reconciliation among different social groupings.
In other cases though the news agenda is used proxies to extend political battles. This can be retrospective as it enables few powerful people to sow divisiveness rather than build consensus. Rather than propagate sober debates, news can elicit deep suspicion and hate as well as social mistrust. In such cases then the news do not serve to encourage democracy. This can build cynicism hence subverting democracy.
In some countries the news agencies have brought down governments due to investigative reporting. This is evidenced by the fall of governments in Latin America as a result of sustained news coverage of human rights violations, corruption and other social ills. At least four presidents in the Latin America fell due to pressure from the media. Fernando Collor de Mello came down in 1992; in Ecuador, Abdala Bucara’s downfall was in 1997; Carlos Perez of Venezuela fell in 2003 while Alberto Fujimori of Ecuador fell in 2000. All these presidents fell due to exposure of massive corruption and undercut dealings which were blown out by credible media houses leaving the culprits with no choice but to leave office. Such outcomes gave a lot of credibility for viewers in the region (McCullagh, 2002, p88).
However such brave reporting requires that the journalists be protected by a functional and independent judiciary as well as security forces. This creates a chicken and egg dilemma. The freedoms of the media may not be guaranteed if other government institutions are dysfunctional. However these institutions cannot be fully functional unless there are independent checks like the media. From this point then it is left to the crusading journalists with the nerve to broadcast critical news.
Democracy is definitely propagated through dissemination of news by the media whose rights are protected. In addition, the news has to be developed by people with the requisite skills to ensure in-depth and holistic reporting as demanded by modern day democracies. The power of the media cannot be under estimated thus requiring that news is developed in a manner that is not only accountable to the public but also in observation of both professional and ethical standards (Keane, 2005, p45).
The authenticity of news to propagate democracy is only guaranteed when the media houses are financially stable and free from manipulation by the owners. The power of news is however enhanced when the reach is widespread towards a large part of the society. This is because democracy does suffer whenever a sizeable proportion of the society cannot be reached by the media.
Numerous initiatives have been explored in a bid to ensure that news coverage is free from manipulation or control by the powerful in society. In countries with weak democracies there have been deliberate efforts to protect the journalists. This is because independent delivery of news will more often than not brush the powerful groups in the wrong ways.
Therefore specific laws have been passed to guarantee the rights of journalists as well as those who blow the whistle. Outdated laws restrict information flow and also impose heavy penalties for libels and defamations which in effect stifle the efforts put by the media.
In addition, many countries have press associations which are charged with the responsibility of monitoring media freedom and pointing out issues relating to any attempts to stifle the freedom of the press. This way the news content is largely protected from malicious interference. This speeds up the process of achieving even greater democracy.
In conclusion, news remains the most important piece of media broadcasting as it disseminates direct reports to people with minimal requirement for further processing. The news are compressed and delivered at specific times to ensure maximum reach. This being the case, contents should be free from any partisan interest in order to paint the correct picture of the socio political and economic situation as this is what ensures that democracy thrives.
Curran, J. 2005.”What democracy requires of the media “in the press.
Keane, J. 2005. “Journalism and democracy across borders” in the press ed.G. Overholser & K. Hall Jamieson, London:Routledge.
McCullagh, C. 2002. “The production of media messages: who sets the media agenda?” media power London: Palgrave.
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