We live in a strange time when journalism and democracy seem to be threatened everyday — despite protections from the First Amendment. Again and again, I hear: “We need journalism now more than ever,” and journalism is increasingly being tied to the concept of democracy. (Last year, for The Excelsior, I wrote about a graduate course that was based around protecting technology, media and democracy.) Both journalism and democracy are rather large concepts to unpack, but they’re undoubtedly deeply intertwined.
The relationship between journalism and democracy has been a subject of high interest my classes this semester. In my sociology class, I spoke for a few minutes as a “discussion leader” about journalism and democracy — based on two rather lackluster pages from the class’ textbook. However, the ideas about journalism and democracy that were shared in my capstone class, are much more intriguing.
The basis of this discussion stems from the introduction to Michael Schudson’s book, Why Journalism Still Matters, in which Schudson describes a “liberal democracy” as the foundation of journalism in a democracy. No, not “liberal” in terms of political affiliation, but more on that soon.
First, here’s more on just the word “democracy.” Many people equate the idea of democracy to the liberties granted to us by the Constitution, but there is just one liberty that is directly tied to it: the right to vote. That is, in a democracy, the general public exercises a role in selecting the individuals who will hold public office. What’s missing in this image — and this is where a “liberal democracy” comes in — are the freedoms that allow us to critique those who are in public office. These freedoms are granted through the First Amendment, which encompasses freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In a “liberal democracy,” the elected officials’ authorities are limited because they must honor liberties that are stated in the Constitution — which includes the First Amendment and a free press.
So, I’ve made the case based on Schudson’s definitions, that a “democracy” is different than a “liberal democracy.” Why is it then, that journalism must co-exist with democracy? The answer is simple, and I’ll phrase it in a question: is there really free thought and will if there wasn’t a free press and instead, the public solely relied on public officials’ word for every account? There’s only so much information the public can gain from the government’s word alone, and there would inevitably be censorship to some degree.
The press is vital to the flow of information in society — a democracy. When it’s suppressed, we lose our democracy as well.