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

10 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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/

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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”

  10. 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.

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