The Role of the Press in a Free Society

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A flip through the daily newspaper. A turn of the radio dial. A scan of the Internet. These actions are quick and almost automatic, and the millions across the country who perform them everyday seldom even give them a thought. But the press, particularly, impresses, exerting a far greater impact on people’s lives than they would at first imagine.

“The pivotal role of the four media of mass communications in our society can be revealed by the estimate that approximately 98 percent of our population relies solely on the media of mass communications for 95 percent of their information,” wrote Thomas Elliott Berry in Journalism in America (Hastings House Publishers, 1976, p. 2).

Indeed, radios, television stations, and Internet sites are accessed from morning to night throughout the world and most people find it difficult to begin their day without first consulting the news and the latest developments in newspapers, magazines, and weeklies, all of which provide information about education, current affairs, finance, science, sports, and weather. The press, undeniably, plays an important part of people’s lives, but few realize the value of it in a free society.

Although it is often claimed that it is responsible for observing governmental occurrences and then reporting them in other countries and under different regimes, democracy itself requires the communication role the press plays to the public for it to function.

“Government would be far less perfect without the constant role of critic played by a responsible press,” wrote Thomas Schroth and Allen and Linda Kirschner in their book, Journalism: Readings in the Mass Media (Odyssey Press, 1971, p. 242).

Both an intermediary and integral part of it, the press serves as the voice of the government spoken to the ears of the public.

Government and press are hardly in harmony, however, and can often be considered adversaries.

Although a single constitution created both entities, the press often learns, explains, and exposes what those in government do not necessarily always wish to have uncovered. So essential is this process, however, that Douglas Cater termed it the “fourth branch of government” after the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. Acting as if it were the fourth leg of a table, the press would render it difficult for the government to function if it were pulled.

Politicians, needless to say, have made considerable effort throughout history to influence what reporters will say about certain affairs and transactions-which, in essence, would nullify their very purpose-but it is mostly the reporter himself, viewing events with a watchful eye, who determines what the public should know. Truthful, accurate, and objective reporting are essential to democracy.

Permitted, for this reason, access to vital information, otherwise private conferences, and interviews with influential figures, from congressmen to the president himself, he records and reports, delivering to his readers.

Time, as an element, often serves as a source of conflict between the press and the government. The latter would prefer an interval during which policy could be resolved before being announced, while the former acts on urgency and does so immediately. Nevertheless, it is this “annoying prying” that enables democracy to work, its communication serving as the link between the people and the government that represents them.

Serving, at times, as critic, the press ensures that that government remains under surveillance, reporting what it learns, whether it be good or bad.

“The government has quite a duty, for the issues must be made plain, the truth clear… ,” wrote Warren K. Agee and Bill D. Moyers in their book, Mass Media in a Free Society (University Press of Kansas, 1969, p. 36). “But the role of the press is no less. As William Allen White said, ‘This nation will survive, this state will prosper, this orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given to utter what their hearts hold-by voice, by postal card, by letters, or by press.’ Especially by the press.”

As an informative intermediary, the press serves as the communication connection between democracy and the people it represents.

Bibliography

Agee, Warren K., and Moyers, Bill D., eds. Mass Media in a Free Society. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969.

Berry, Thomas Elliott. Journalism in America. New York: Hastings House Publishers, 1976.

Schroth, Thomas, and Kirschner, Allen and Linda, eds. Journalism: Readings in the Mass Media. New York: Odyssey Press, 1971.

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Source by Robert Waldvogel