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

7 Comments

  1. With modern technology, media plays a huge role in everybody’s lives. For some people, it is the main way they receive any type of news. This is very scary when there are such allegations as fake news.

  2. The freedom of press in inheritly important to our country’s history. They have done notable work in uncovering truths for the betterment of the public. I agree that the rhetoric used against journalists is often used too frequently, and at times, news media organizations are used as scape goats. One positive result that I have seen from the converstation is that people are generally paying closer to attention to what they read and where it comes from. Bias is an unfortunate reality that we all are guilty of, and any organization has some sort of underlying intention, however, that doesnt always discredit the work of journalists and their integrity. They’re not the entire news media. More often than not, they are individuals seeking to find stories and information that is relevant to the public.

  3. As internet media accessibility has widened, press has begun to play a larger role in everyone’s life. From Twitter ‘Moments’ to Apple News, modern information rarely spreads by word of mouth but rather through the press’ presence on social media. Everyone has access to tons of information via online press sources, because of this widened access I kind of believe that there should be some sort of ‘fact-check’ applicable to news stories. I don’t think the press should be limited, people should be able to post what they want, but I think the audiences of the press should have easy access to a third-party source that could verify the facts provided in the news stories.

  4. In my opinion, the press has always been a liaison for the American people and the government. It is a channel for information to flow between voters and politicians and consumers and business. A lot can be determined and communicated through passing of information and a lot can be convinced through the manipulation of information. Politicians can gain vital information on voter support of them or issues they intend to address. It can also be used as an access point to understand what the voter is truly looking for. Voters and citizens are fed information about the issues they care about and politicians they support or don’t.
    The market model that news media currently follows is less limiting and more limiting at the same time. Because it is market based and privately funded, the news media has free reign over what they report, which could be a good thing for consumers or a bad thing for consumers. Media leaders and journalists (based on any bias they may have) really choose what to report and that can leave information out that could have been used by the consumer to reach a decision.

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