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.

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?

Why Freedom of the Press is More Important Now Than Ever World Press Freedom

Day, Brookings Experts Reflect on the Importance of a Free Press

Trump’s Attacks on the News Media Are Working


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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