The Importance of Freedom of the Press in a Democracy

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Introduction
From the dawn of the United States of America with the creation of the three branches of the government, journalists and news reporters have played the role of informing the people and holding political leaders accountable. The First Amendment that offers “freedom of speech and of the press” has been the aspect of the American constitution that has long empowered journalist to speak the truth, even if they are under duress and in harm’s way. Since the inception of the United States there has been conflict and tension between the press and governmental officials. In this way, Patrick D’Arcy (Editorial Manager of the TED Fellows program) states that “US history has been marked by an ongoing conflict between the government’s attempts to strengthen and protect itself and the press’s attempts to scrutinize and report on the government.” Part of the United State’s success as a democracy is owed to the country having a free press. D’Arcy also points out that “some of the most important voices before and during the American Revolution were anonymous pamphleteers who were writing under pseudonyms, talking about the crimes of the British government… speeches, pamphlets and newspapers” during the revolution “were critical in informing and galvanizing public support for the revolt.”
Why Freedom of the Press is More Important Now Than Ever

Attacks on Journalists and the Press
The past few decades have seen ever growing attacks on US journalists and members of the press. These attacks are seemingly coming to a crescendo under the Trump administration. Information from the press has been consistently characterized as unreliable sources of information. However, this trend and growing disdain for journalist and the news media is not just relegated to the US, but has a world-wide phenomenon. Freedom House -A US-based non-profit independent watchdog group that has monitored attacks on freedom and democracy around the world for over three quarters of a century,  stated that when freedom of the press is threatened it is “a threat to democracies.”
Attacks on the Records: The State of Global Press Freedom, 2017-2018

Because of much of the rhetoric hurled at the news media and the daily social media discourse disparaging journalists, there seems to be a growing public distrust of the news media and journalism. The term “fake news” has become a phrase that is used to discredit the validity of information coming from journalists and news outlets such as CNN, NPR, the Washington Post, The BBC News and the New York Times. Jim Rutenberg stated in an October 2018 New York Times article, that the term “fake news,” was coined by the Trump administration and casts all journalists (Accept those that agree with him) as the “enemy of the people.” This was a “negative branding campaign” that was aimed “against those who would hold him accountable” for his actions as the President of the United States. With many journalists and reporters being constantly under attack it is important to examine the critical role that the press plays in a democracy. The importance of the press and journalists in a democracy to keep the public informed and hold government officials accountable cannot be overstated.

The attacks on the news media has weakened the public’s faith in the press as a valid source of information. Rutenberg stated “By one measure, a CBS News poll over the summer, 91 percent of strong Trump supporters trust him to provide accurate information; 11 percent said the same about the news media.” This conversation becomes much more important and sinister when we are reminded that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi –who wrote a column regularly for the Washington Post, was killed by his government for being outspoken against the Saudi government. Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post

The Saudis then tried to cover it up and President Trump was very reluctant to condemn their government until he was backed into a corner when presented with overwhelming evidence.
Maybe He Did, Maybe He Didn’t’: Trump Defends Saudis, Downplays U.S. Intel

Importance of Free Press in a Democracy
Lawyer and free press advocate Trevor Timm states that “an independent press is one of the essential pillars of a democracy.” He also goes on to say that the First Amendment and its protection of the press “has always been the bulwark against secret government, against authoritarianism and against tyranny. The concept of a free press was intentionally and deliberately written into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to preserve freedom of the people. The amendment was of grave importance in the eighteenth century during its inception, and is just as important now. The press is often thought of as a “fourth branch of government” because it also helps balance power in the government. Without that fourth branch the concept of a democratic system of government starts to weaken and after a while the democracy would crumble. We have examined the key role the press can play in a democracy. Below are some questions that may spark a meaningful classroom conversation.

Questions for Discussion
What role does the press play in your life?
Do you think there should be checks on the press like there are on the government?
Discuss how the idea of censorship can destroy a democracy.
Why is it critical for students to understand the importance of the First Amendment and Freedom of the Press?
How might a free press be related to the idea of critical thinking?

References
Why Freedom of the Press is More Important Now Than Ever
https://ideas.ted.com/why-freedom-of-the-press-is-more-important-now-than-ever/On World Press Freedom

Day, Brookings Experts Reflect on the Importance of a Free Press
https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2018/05/02/on-world-press-freedom-day-brookings-experts-reflect-on-the-importance-of-a-free-press/

Trump’s Attacks on the News Media Are Working
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/business/media/trumps-attacks-news-media.html

45 Comments

  1. To answer one of the question in the discussion section, the press tends to play a big role in my life. Actually, I believe the press plays a big role in all of our lives. The press is how we find things out about current things going on in the government. I feel as though it is important to have around, I mean, it is our right to the press!

  2. The press plays a big role in my life and the life of others around me. It keeps us informed. However with the amount of fake an opinionated news circulating I feel there should be closer checks on the press like their is the government. My biggest concern with journalism, although portrayed to always tell the truth, is that some journalist have the own bias which then alters the way they share information to the public. Although I am a big believer in freedom of the press I’m feeling a bit sceptic on it’s information lately. We have a right to free public press but we also have a right to the truth.

  3. To answer one of the questions above, I think there should be checks on the press. The press plays a very important role in everyone’s life, but it seems to me lately that the press has not been very truthful lately. Freedom of speech/press is important, but it’s always important on how you word things, especially when the whole world can hear it. I’ve heard a lot of biased information from the press, and if they are going to give us information based on the government, I think it should be real and honest, not just what they think or want from it.

  4.  The press plays a huge role in my life its everywhere! Social media for sure. You never know if what your reading is actually true though. The press send out information for citizens to read up on and I think that’s great, I love knowing things. It’s important to know things that can affect you or the people you love. 

  5. The press is very important in all of our lives because it keeps us informed on what’s happening in the world around us. However, because of the freedom of press and the first amendment, while it is giving us information to inform us, we are being guided on what to think is important amidst all of the happenings around the world. The news is based on someone’s opinions and biases versus the truth. Yes, they all give facts to support these opinions and biases, but anyone can distort facts to support any argument. I agree there should be checks on the media, yet even so there would still be biases because we are humans and we all have our own opinions and views regardless of facts.

  6. In today’s world, press is obviously a big thing in everyone’s life. Press play’s a big role in my life by watching the news, or reading a magazine and seeing who is getting divorced and for how much and who is dating who and so on. However, with that being said, most of the time, it is fake. The press is just mainly looking for drama and a good story so they exaggerate it. I absolutely think there should be checks on the press like there are in government because the people of the United States need accurate and trustworthy information. The United States is a great place and we are very fortunate to have the first amendment, therefore it is critical for students to understand the first amendment and the Freedom of the Press, but it is also important to know not abuse it.

  7. The press is everywhere, and therefore is a major part in everyone’s life. It is not only on the news, but also on our smartphones, televisions, and advertisements. When you first glance at an article, it is easy to make assumptions by the title, pictures, or heading, without even reading the whole thing. However, by doing that you miss the opportunity to analyze if what you are reading is really true. It’s funny how you can read the five articles on the same subject and be presented with five different versions of the same story. This causes confusion, miseducation, and uninformed opinions, which is why it should be monitored more strictly.

  8. I am passionate about the freedom of the press. I believe that it is an essential hallmark of our democracy. When the President of the United States uses terms like, “enemy of the people,” it is undermining the democracy that put him in the White House. It is very interesting to research the tension that historically has been present between the White House (or Congress) and the press. The hostility towards the press, and the journalists that make up the fourth estate, that marks today’s White House, however, creates a very real sense of unease from those who believe in the power of a free press.

  9. I believe the press is very important and plays an important role in many people’s lives. Although it is very true that having the press keeps citizens informed and updated on many things happening in the world, I also believe it could be very biased because it is based on the reporter’s/journalist’s thoughts. I also believe that the press could be corrupted through censorship and it could have two different affects on the public. For example, in North Korea, the press is monitored, “brainwashing” everyone that lives there to believe their dictator is “god”. Our press is not monitored, but the press plays a huge role in making most citizens believe that our president is an idiot. To me, the idea of censorship on free press could destroy a democracy because us as citizens would not hear all of the propaganda and everything told and shown would be twisted to make us believe and see what they want.

  10. I think that the press plays a big role in not only my life but the people around me as well. The way that we find out about current news and government news in general through the press. To me, the press is important to have around and know things that are happening around the world. We have the right to hear these things from the press.

  11. The press plays a huge role in everyone’s lives. I think that the press is very important because they keep us updated on events and certain things going on around us. I think that the freedom of the press is important, although sometimes it can be hard to know if something is actually true. I think that there should be checks on the media because we should be able to trust what information is being given to us. I think having the right to write what you want is important, but I also think we have the right to correct information.

  12. The press plays a huge role in my life every single day. The press always plays a role in society. It informs, educates and even entertains people. The press influences the way that we look at the whole world and sometimes, makes us change our views or perspectives. The media plays a huge role in deciding what the publics opinion will be.

  13. The press plays a role in my life by informing me on the day to day news. Media plays a huge role on what we see happening in our country and the cities around us. I personally do not think that there should be checks on the press because I believe information can become falsified. Censorship can overall destroy a democracy because by taking away certain parts of something such a media or even the press, this shows that someones voice was not being heard. Students need to know the importance of the press and the first amendment because it is our voices that need to be heard. If we are not informed of the matter, we cannot use our voice. Free press is related to critical thinking because you must use your ideas and your way of thinking to inform or persuade others.

  14. The press and media have been able to inform readers and their audiences on the negligence and disrespect many of our Americans have caused in today’s society. It has brought social justice to those who have harmed others and it been the very light of our country. Someone once told me all stories won’t sell, but all stories are powerful enough to change lives. I don’t feel that there should be a strict policy as to how the media should portray someone’s actions or emotions. In fact we as Americans should not be confined to speak out against something we see as false or incorrect. If there was censorship it wouldn’t allow the media to show exactly what their audience needs to see and appeal to. It would not show cultural diversity and that there is a current problem with how society is interacting with one another.

  15. The purpose of journalism and the press, in my opinion, is to keep readers/viewer informed on whatever topic is being discussed. However, I don’t think the press is very thorough in making sure we the public has all of the information or “truth” in order to form their own opinions. Every human being is susceptible to influence of opinion. The press and journalism can be great ways to stay in the know with society, but your perception of society can be swayed by the press that you choose to listen to. Even in recent events, a 2-minute clip of a video was released, sparking a huge nationwide uproar. But, after all of these opinions were formed on the matter, someone released the full 45-minute clip that then cause many platforms to retract their statements because they were not aware of the full “truth” of the matter. This is an unfortunate reality about press and journalism. There will never be an unbiased “truth” just different forms of perception appearing to be reality.

  16. To answer one of the following discussion questions above, the press plays a huge roll in not only my life, but society in its entirety. The press is important because it allows everyone to attain knowledge of their local community including national and world news. The press is able to inform people of events happening almost minutes after they occur. The press also helps people know what future events may occur so that they can prepare for a solution that works best for them. The press is an efficient platform to communicate with people about different events occuring and in a timely fashion.

  17. A free press is one of the most important parts of a democracy. I do not see it wrong in any way to criticize news outlets or journalists when they are being deceptive, biased, or flat out lying. I believe the press’s job is to keep the government in check and the people’s job is to keep the press in check. I think it is also important to note than often times, news outlets slander/attack other news outlets and sometimes even call each other fake news due to differing political stances (see interactions between Breitbart, Fox, Daily Wire vs CNN, MSMBC, CBS, etc.). The press in America is arguably freer now than under the Obama years (Obama spied and prosecuted journalists), but no one ever talks about that seemingly. Nevertheless, the press should be respected and revered, but to many Americans, the press needs to earn back their trust and respect. To do that, both sides need to turn down their rhetoric and try to turn down their bias.

  18. The press plays a monumental part in everyone’s life, it is how we access information and news that we cannot see first hand, and it is a major agent for the spread of theories, ideas and ideologies. Furthermore the press has a pivotal role in the government as it acts as a watchdog meant to keep politicians in line and their goal on the american people. While news and press bias are a very valid and dangerous concern, the larger concern is that the people might lose faith and trust in the press. This trust in the press should not have limitless boundaries. Due to the bias and the corruption of any institution including the press we must regard all new information with skepticism, checking the facts and recognizing the author’s bias and intentions. In sort we must use critical thinking and critical theory to vet all new information regardless of its source.

  19. While freedom of the press is entirely essential to our democracy, I believe the press is in need of a system of checks. As mentioned in the article, there has recently been a growing trend of attacks on the press, especially with the coining of the term “fake news”. This makes people question the sincerity of the reports from both ends, and leaves people picking sides based on views and opinions rather than facts. Having this “fourth branch of government” helps balance power among the rest of the government, however it will not be successful if people are questioning the legitimacy of the news reported.

  20. To address the discussion prompt, “Discuss how the idea of censorship can destroy a democracy”.

    Censorship, simply put, is the suppression of speech or public communication on the basis that the material is considered harmful as determined by the government. Democracy is a system where we get to exercise the power to choose, be an active participant, vote and elect. If we were to censor everything that allows for citizens to choose and be active participants, then we would be destroying the rule of law. The U.S. Constitution intentionally includes free press to give people the freedom to express, and without that, there wouldn’t be any balance to power. Because the main media outlets are all controlled by the same company, if they were to be crippled and self-censored, it would ultimately threaten democracy.

  21. The press plays a big role in anyones life who lives in America. The press is how we receive information and get information that we can not directly obtain. Press should be monitored just like any other individual that is in the government. Although the press sometimes sends out biased and incorrect information they are exercising their right to bring information out in the open.But, by using our critical thinking it helps weed out any potential biased information and filter out the good press information that can be influential and important to us.

  22. I believe that this amendment and the freedom of press plays a huge role in my life. Without this freedom of press I believe that a lot of what we discover and know about the government would be kept in secret. I also believe that the government could turn into a Dictatorship, keeping secrets from the entire nation and forcing us to do things that doesn’t go with the rules of democracy.

  23. To me it seems like during most of my life the press plays a background role. It wasn’t until these past four years that I have actively looked into whether or not my news is “fake”. I feel that if we want to pursue the idea of a democracy where the common person can vote that person must be as educated on issues facing the democracy as he or she can.

  24. For me I do not typically watch the news from the television everyday. Yet I still get sources of press from social media or the radio. I do believe that all press should be regulated and seen if it is a legitimate source and not fake. I personally do not rally know how to tell if something is or is not fake. If someone from the news tells me something, I typically am going to believe what information they are giving me is correct and reliable. Of course, I do not which websites and different sources are not as reliable, yet I do believe it would be a great idea for all press to be checked.

  25. To answer one of the question in the discussion section, the press tends to play a big role in my life. Actually, I believe the press plays a big role in all of our lives. The press is how we find things out about current things going on in the government. I feel as though it is important to have around, I mean, it is our right to the press!

  26. The press plays a huge role in my life and in most Americans lives, whether we realize it or not. Freedom of the Press is important because it gives us information that we wouldn’t learn without it. I think it’s important when learning new information from journalists to recognize if it is biased and to consider all sides of the situation. Fake news seems to be a big topic right now in America and it’s important to research things that are happening through a variety of credible sources to understand all sides.

  27. The press plays a huge role in my life and many others. It is where most, if not all, information about what is going on in the world and in our country comes from. I think that it should be checked like other parts of government. Since it is the main source of information, it should be as accurate as possible. With so much controversy over what is “fake news” and what isn’t, it is important that news sources are getting their facts right and that they can back up what they are putting out. Although it is important to do the fact checking ourselves before fully believing an article, many people will not go that far and will just believe whatever it is they read initially just based on who is telling it to them. If the press were to be checked like the rest of the branches of government, I think that there might be less confusion and distrust over what the media is posting about.

  28. I feel that the press plays a huge part in our life. The press is how we can find out about current events or things going on in our government. One of the big things I struggle with in reading is knowing if the information is legit. I feel that so many pages online are not trustworthy and are false reporting to the public. I also feel that while reporters on reporting on some imformation they are failing to report on all the important things happening in the world.

  29. We’re asked about the role that press plays in our life, and that limits it down to what we see on TV. What we see on TV is reporters trying to get the story out, by whatever means possible. It’s hard to believe what we see, without some sort of proof. Sure, hearing the press talk about how Trump did that and Trump did that, but give us the facts. We want evidence. Freedom of press is something that should remain sustained, but we must not always believe what we see because sometimes this freedom is exaggerated and embellished.

  30. The press place a huge role in America and I think this is because of social media. People want news quickly and places like Twitter and Facebook are the easiest places to access it. While it is important for citizens to know what is going on, I think going to multiple sources when reading about a topic is important because a lot of stories are played up to create drama and attract followers.

  31. This article is spot on in addressing the malicious attack on press agencies. The “negative branding campaign” has charged the polarization of both democratic and republican parties alike to real unrest. The Free Press is indeed an important part of why our democracy has worked so far, as they assist in the transparency of government actions. We all know that transparency is a huge part of having strong governments, and Trump and his party have truly done great damage, especially to the ignorant population to avoid being “held accountable”. We could certainly look to other countries where this kind of attack has done harm, such as in Haiti, or even Iraq. It seems Trump lacks understanding, integrity and respect for the balance of our democracy. Let’s hope he doesn’t lead us to book burnings next. Gods save us.

  32. When I think of the press I immediately think of those old time newspaper boys in movies yelling from street corners about new news stories. However, the press is everywhere, not just in newspapers. With the ride of social media outlets and online newspapers more and more people have access to major events going on in the world more so than in any other point in history, in my opinion. The main thing I like to focus on and I wish that everyone did when reading any sort of article or posting made on a topic is to be informed. Titles can sometimes be misleading so it is our job to weed through the writings that are true to the point of the story and the ones that are most likely called “fake news”

  33. I think the press plays a huge part in my life. Without things being on the news or in newspaper we wouldn’t know anything. We all can’t go sit outside of the White House and try to hear what the president is saying, or to see what he’s doing or not doing. We rely on the news to tell us whats happening.

  34. Without the press, how else would us citizens be able to know what is going on with the government or news from across the country or world? While sometimes it seems like the media can be overwhelming, it is really a great thing because we might be taken advantage of if we do not know what is going on.

  35. The freedom of press is very important and unique to this country from the very beginning during its founding. But as per the freedom of speech granted by the first amendment it is well within the rights of the president and citizens of this country to label news outlets as “fake news” regardless of its accuracy. I disagree with your statement though that “These attacks are seemingly coming to a crescendo under the Trump administration.” If anything Trumps attack on the media garners more attention than Obamas but it was Obamas approach to journalism that spurred Trump if anything.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/shocked-by-the-trump-aggression-against-reporters-and-sources-the-blueprint-was-made-by-obama/2018/06/08/c0b84d88-6b06-11e8-9e38-24e693b38637_story.html?utm_term=.966ad044523f

    https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/obama-whose-administration-prosecuted-and-spied-on-reporters-claims-trump-is-very-bad-for-criticizing-newsrooms

    https://variety.com/2018/politics/news/trump-press-war-obama-administration-reporters-1202782264/

    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/opinion/sunday/if-donald-trump-targets-journalists-thank-obama.html

    https://nypost.com/2018/09/08/obama-who-once-surveilled-reporters-criticizes-trump-over-press-freedom/

  36. Freedom of the Press is a really great thing. Having the ability to be able to voice opinions and be informed about what goes on in America is something that makes this country different than the rest of the world. Not all countries get that freedom. However, I do understand where certain people have criticisms about the press in this country. Because of the wide variety of sources where news comes from (internet, social media, tv, magazines, etc.), a lot of the news has turned from “keeping the public informed” to “giving opinions and stating them as fact”. Because of this, it can be hard to determine what news from the press is true, what is exaggerated, and what is just opinions. I think that being able to express these things is a right we have as Americans. But as Americans, we also have a responsibility to stay informed by a variety of sources, not just ones saying what we want to hear.

  37. The press is involved in much of my life, as well as, all Americas! I believe that it is important to have an established press, in order to obtain government information that we wouldn’t be able to acquire without the press. The information that is given through the press may be biased and inaccurate but it is our duty, as citizens, to research and better understand the information that holds true to the government. This research and understanding can be done through a student’s/citizens critical thinking process. This process of checking of the press is important for accurate information. I feel that it is necessary for the press should be checked just, as the government goes through checks.

  38. When it comes to the press, it is a large part of everyone’s lives. The press tells us what is happening around us and keeps us up to date with the world we will live. I do think that not everything we are told is true that comes from some press, which should be controlled. It is not fair to inform people about false I formation. So while I agree

  39. The press is something that every person must encounter on a daily basis. The press was designed to present information on important happenings in the world around us in a manner that does not skew the information being presented. Like anything human however their will always be a bias and slight misrepresentation or recollection of the facts in order to further that particular individuals agenda. There should be a way of monitoring content that is being distributed. Either share it all or nothing at all. It is depressing that this is an issue in any press media you come across.

  40. The press is definitely something we encounter everyday. The press was designed to present information that goes on in everyday life. It is important for us to know what is going on not only with the government but worldly as well. Important things need to be reported to us so we can be aware of our surroundings. There can always be misrepresentation that can become bias, but making sure all of the facts are presented and not false information is very important.

  41. Press is normal to me, the press is just the middle man to sharing information that goes on everyday. it is important to know what is going on so we can be aware of any dangerous things we may have to encounter.

  42. The press plays an extremely important role in American society today. It is the primary source of news and links the gap between the government and ‘regular Americans.’ By limiting the freedom of the press, the American people are essentially being lied to. All citizens deserve the right to know what is happening nationally in the most veracious way possible. No one, especially not the president of the United States, should be allowed to control the news.

  43. The press and media is such an important piece of our lives because it is how we stay informed of what is happening in our nation and all over the world. There is so much bias in the news even though they are stating facts and that bias can persuade one’s opinion even if it may not be true. The press holds almost as much power as the government itself because it is the press that can reach out to the people and show their side of a situation. This makes me also question whether or not the press should have any censorship or follow certain guidelines.

  44. I think this topic is a great way to talk about current events in the social studies classroom. I think that this topic allows for a conversation that students wouldn’t normally have. To start this topic, I would try and find two news different news sources that were about the same event that said very different things. From this, students could research with other provided materials and determine which news piece was “fake news.” I think this is a topic to tread on lightly because it does have a tendency to cause controversy, but I think it’s a necessary topic to discuss, because unfortunately it’s the new normal. The press has changed dramatically since it’s inception, so it’s important to stay up to date, before it changes again.

  45. I think that this topic is extremely interesting and would be a great way to introduce the use of current events in a classroom. In high school, one of my teachers required us to have a weekly current event discussion with our peers for 10 minutes. I never fully understood the importance of this activity, but now with the press seemingly being under constant controversy, I think it is important to continue to practice our rights of freedom of speech and press.

    In the article, I also found the statistic interesting that 91 percent of strong Trump supporters would trust him for accurate information in comparison to the 11 percent that would trust the media for accurate information. Although I feel that the media may be wrong sometimes, I think it is slightly absurd to put full trust in a single person for reliable information. Overall, I feel that as a teacher it is important to instill the importance of having freedom of speech and press while also teaching students how to seek true information.

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