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. I agree that one of the most important part of a democracy is free-press. This is because a huge part of a democracy is the ability to make your own decision as a voter. When the government, or any political figure gains control of media out-lets, the truth begins to skew. Sooner or later people begin to make decisions based on what people want them to know, rather than what is real.

  2. The press, as an institution, is what keeps an ‘honest’ government honest. However, in the last 30 years, the ‘independence’ of the media has dwindled. Now a lot of these trusted news sources are owned by large conglomerates with interests beyond that of informing the public. For instance, Graham Holdings, who previously owned The Washington Post and Newsweek, also held significant shares in Forney Corp. who produces instruments which monitor emissions from power plants. Couldn’t Graham have used their ‘trusted’ news outlet to galvanize environmental support for something that would increase their profits? Or could Graham have promoted a healthcare bill that would increase profits for their holdings in the healthcare industry? Graham Holdings sold the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos in 2015, another conglomerate, and that’s just one example. The paper hasn’t really turned a profit either, so the question begs to be asked, why buy it??? Simple. Use the trusted name as a platform to solicit your agenda. Before people get fired up this is done by conglomerates of all affiliations. Nonetheless, media should be free from influence and it is not. I’m not saying reporters are corrupt, but I am saying the conglomerates who employ them are and shouldn’t be trusted.

  3. The First Amendment is one of the things that sets our country apart from many other countries. In most other countries around the world, the press doesn’t have complete freedom to publish what they want, and these restrictions limit the possibility of honest reporting. In the U.S., the press has complete freedom to say whatever they wish without fear of being persecuted. It should be noted that “freedom of speech” does not mean “free from being criticized” – if your article contains false or biased information, then criticism against the article is warranted. While it is the press’ unofficial duty to keep the government in check, it is also the duty of the American public to keep the press in check, and ensure that the news they are printing is honest and trustworthy.

  4. Freedom of speech has always been an integral part of our constitution, and country. This should also apply to press. Without freedom of speech it is easier for people in power to control information and in return control people. News outlets and the internet have made it much easier for information, or misinformation, to spread. All of these medias have their own opinions on events and should all have the right to share that. The reader can get a clear view of the events just by fact checking and reading multiple sources.

  5. The press and media are a large part of the lives of everyone in today’s time. Everyone gets their information from the press or media in some form or another. They hold political leaders accountable for their actions and inform the citizens of what is going on. Because of this, it is definitely important that the press has free speech. If the government were to take the freedom of speech away from the press, then the citizens likely wouldn’t get an accurate portrayal of what is really happening, thus hiding us from any corruption that may be occurring.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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