Communication and Citizenship: Journalism and the Public Sphere in the New Media Age

By Peter Dahlgren; Colin Sparks | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Goodbye, Hildy Johnson: the vanishing 'serious press'

Colin Sparks

Scholarly discussion of journalists is dominated by the belief that what they do is terribly important for the functioning of modern society. In this it is joined by journalists' conception of themselves and by both official and popular accounts of their activity. This unusual unanimity is predicated upon the view that journalism is a vital part of political life. In the 'western democratic' version the argument usually runs that a free and independent media, and thus free and independent journalists, are necessary parts of the political structure in that they are the major mechanism by which citizens are informed about the world and the activities of their political representatives, come to form their opinions as to political and social issues and are enabled to exercise a genuine choice between different policies. It is usually recognized that this is not the only function that the media in general, and the press in particular, actually fulfil, but it is by far the most important, and it is with reference to this function that the press is praised or criticized. A representative statement of this view was that given by the last British Royal Commission on the Press, which argued:

Newspapers and periodicals serve society in diverse ways. They inform their readers about the world and interpret it to them. They act both as watch-dogs for citizens, by scrutinising concentrations of power, and as a means of communication among groups within the community, thus promoting social cohesion and social change. Of course, the press seeks to entertain as well as to instruct and we would not wish to dismiss this aim as trivial, but it is the performance of the serious functions which justifies the high importance which democracies attach to a free press. 1

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