Democracy and the Media

Many theorists of democracy consider the existence of a viable, independent media an indispensable trait of a functioning and actual democratic regime. This idea is best exemplified in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, where principles of free expression and assembly are guaranteed. From that principle, a sprawling newspaper industry was able to grow. The publishing industry also enjoyed autonomy, allowing treatises and histories to express ideas that might otherwise be censored or restricted in a non-democratic society. Some argue democracy does not require full freedom of expression in a complex mass media in order to be considered free. The Western democratic concept of the media might be traced to the colonial era in America, particularly in the former English colonies. Early modern journalists collected travel logs and the statements of attendees at local pubs for publication. Throughout the 19th century, the American press became staunchly partisan, with many publications serving the interests of a particular political party. Many would argue that this did not change in the 20th century.

Some have referred to the press as the fourth branch of the government, or the "Fourth Estate" in reference to its position in society. Though different concepts, these ideas express the power of the media, or the press, against that of the higher strata of society or the official branches of government. These concepts illustrate the influence of the media's representation of events to the public, swinging elections or public opinion in order to make governments work for the public interest.

The relationship between media and democracy is subject to debate in Western society. Concerns about the influence of media over elections and political views stem from the conglomeration and merging of several companies that might constitute an emerging oligopoly of information. Consequently, issues are brought up that stem from the consideration of freedom of speech to which media outlets might feel entitled, the possible emergence of business monopolies or the unethical suppression of undesirable or less-than-well-financed political campaigns. Increasingly, analysts have viewed the Internet as leveling the playing field in terms of journalism and opinion. The rise of blogs has allowed people with relatively few resources to express themselves and gain large followings without depending on being hired by a media outlet. Social networking has also enabled a challenge to inaccurate reporting from conventional media and exposed society to a larger scope of sources of information without being dependent on limited, corporate-funded entities.

The media's expansion has changed the dynamic of political campaigning. With the advent of the radio, candidates' speeches and leaders' statements were broadcast to a wide range of listeners. With the advent of television, images began to play a central role in campaigning. It has been said that the 1960 American presidential elections marked a shift from to television as the most influential medium. Following one of the year's presidential debates, John F. Kennedy was considered the winner by the majority of television viewers, while the majority of radio listeners considered Richard Nixon to have had the edge, perhaps foreshadowing the evolution of media campaigns. Political campaigning since the 1992 American presidential elections shifted away from dependency on a select few networks and news reporting sources that had traditionally played an unmatched role in the American political process.

With the alternative candidacy of Ross Perot, an independently wealthy and unaffiliated figure, traditional media was left shut out as his personal fortune expanded his influence and reached more of a constituency than any other third party candidate since the mid-1800s. His campaign, which strived to avoid television, radio and traditional interviews or encounters with journalists, undercut the significant influence of media titans. It also protected the campaign from extensive scrutiny. That in turn raised debate from those who allege he avoided tight and deserved scrutiny as a candidate for public office. Alternatively, his efforts were hailed for escaping the media which accepted certain norms and restricted non-traditional candidates or non-traditional methods of communication and campaigning.

With the advent of the Internet, many considered democracy to have been revolutionized. The spread of social networking and fast communication has been credited with the organization of protests throughout the Muslim World. In 2009, many labeled the Iranian uprising the "Twitter Revolution." In 2011, social media was credited in several Arab countries with calling for protests and soliciting quick responses. The rise of technology raised authoritarian states' level of control of communication media, from extended government-sponsored firewalls to bans on satellites. It has been suggested that protesters' ability to video abuses of demonstrators hindered some governments' ability to crackdown and perhaps facilitated successful uprisings. However, efforts by the Libyan and Syrian governments also demonstrated some governments' willingness to ignore the power of communication and risk international isolation in order to retain power, thus blunting the potential for communication technology to compel more open government policy.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Mass Media in Liberal Democratic Societies
Stanley Rothman.
Paragon House, 1992
Democracy and the News
Herbert J. Gans.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Media, Markets, and Democracy
C. Edwin Baker.
Cambridge University Press, 2001
The Mass Media and Democracy: Between the Modern and the Postmodern
Carey, James W.
Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 47, No. 1, Summer 1993
Media and Power
James Curran.
Routledge, 2002
Election Polls, the News Media, and Democracy
Paul J. Lavrakas; Michael W. Traugott.
Chatham House Publishers, 2000
Communicating Democracy: The Media and Political Transitions
Patrick H. O'Neil.
Lynne Rienner, 1998
Democracy without Citizens: Media and the Decay of American Politics
Robert M. Entman.
Oxford University Press, 1989
The Press and the Decline of Democracy: The Democratic Socialist Response in Public Policy
Robert G. Picard.
Greenwood Press, 1985
With Malice toward All? The Media and Public Confidence in Democratic Institutions
Patricia Moy; Michael Pfau.
Praeger, 2000
The People's Right to Know: Media, Democracy, and the Information Highway
Frederick Williams; John V. Pavlik.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Communication and the Culture of Democracy: Global Media and Promotion of Democracy in the Middle East
Al-Obaidi, Jabbar.
International Journal of Instructional Media, Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter 2003
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