By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain the importance of a free press both in the United States and abroad.
- Describe how the media acts as a watchdog and give examples.
- Understand and define how political information is mediated.
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.
—The 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution
The press is the only profession explicitly protected in the United States Constitution. Many attribute this protection to James Madison and his writings in the Federalist Papers, but the idea of a free press stretches back to well before Madison wrote out his ideas on what constitutes a perfect democracy. The origins of the free press in the United States can be traced back to Cato’s letters, a collection of essays written in the 1720s by two British writers, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Using the pseudonym Cato, they published their articles in the British press, criticizing the British monarchy for its corruption and tyrannical practices. Decades later, American colonists felt the effects of these letters during their own struggles against the Crown,1 and in 1776, Virginia became the first state to formally adopt a constitutional provision to protect press freedom.2 Why is the idea of protecting the press so embedded in the United States’ concept of government, and why is this concept so important? Do other nations protect the media to the same extent, or even more? The next section will examine these questions.
The Fourth Estate and Freedom of the Press
The importance of a free press can be boiled down to a sentence from esteemed University of Illinois at Chicago lecturer Doris Graber’s seminal work Mass Media and American Politics: “The mass media . . . serve as powerful guardians of political norms because the American people believe that a free press should keep them informed about the wrongdoings of government.”3 Another common way of defining the media’s role is to say that it acts as the fourth estate, or the unofficial fourth branch of government that checks the others. The term fourth estate is credited to Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporter’s Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”4 In other words, people look to the media—the fourth estate—to keep the government in check. The role of the media must be protected if it is to carry out that task.
Throughout US history, the media has fulfilled this role as intended. In the late 1960s, Rand Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg provided classified documents to the New York Times and the Washington Post proving that the government was concealing protracted military involvement in the Vietnam War. The New York Times withstood government pressure and a Supreme Court case to go on to publish a series of articles now known as the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the extent to which the American public had been lied to about the country’s progress in that war. The Watergate scandal is perhaps the most famous example of press freedom and the role of the press as watchdog (another term for the fourth estate). In this instance, a government informant known as Deep Throat fed Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein confidential information about then president Richard Nixon’s corrupt campaign practices. An ensuing series of investigative pieces by the two journalists revealed multiple abuses of power in Nixon’s reelection campaign, and their reporting ultimately led to the indictment of multiple presidential aides and the eventual resignation of the president himself.
In this video clip, investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, editor Barry Sussman, and former executive editor Ben Bradlee recall how, when they worked for the Washington Post in 1972, they broke the story of the Watergate scandal, a story that started with an investigation of a break-in at a Washington, DC, hotel and led to a constitutional crisis, the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and almost 50 criminal convictions.
In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the Supreme Court ruled 6–3 that the president’s argument—that prior restraint5 was necessary in order to protect national security—was not enough “to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment,”6 and this is the most important First Amendment case because it addresses the sweeping right of the press and press protections in the 20th century. Watergate showed how a protected press is free to serve one of its main purposes, which is to reveal government misconduct. New Yorker staff writer Richard Harris wrote at the time that, “The press was potentially Mr. Nixon’s enemy—far more than the courts or Congress, because only the press could dig out and tell the story (whatever help reporters might get from the courts or Congress) in a way that would arouse the people to demand an accounting.”7
Watchdogs do not have to be journalistic behemoths like the New York Times or the Washington Post. In the United Kingdom, a small, independent newspaper called the Rochdale Alternative Paper revealed decades-long abuse allegations against Liberal Party MP8 Cyril Smith. The exposé in the paper, which had a circulation of 8,000 at its highest,9 eventually led to both a police and an independent government investigation into a child abuse ring that involved several high-level government officials, including MP Peter Morrison, the private secretary to then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.10 Another way to understand the watchdog function of the press is through the term muckraker, referring to reform-minded investigative journalists during the Progressive Era in the United States (late 1800s to early 1900s) who exposed the wrongdoings of industry leaders. One famous example of a muckraker was Upton Sinclair, who wrote the novel The Jungle based on the corrupt and inhumane practices in American meatpacking companies at the turn of the 20th century. The publication of The Jungle led to governmental action on food safety. In his 1919 work The Brass Check, Sinclair exposed the journalism industry’s penchant for yellow journalism, or journalism that relies on catchy titles and human interest stories to drive sales over well-researched articles or pieces on civic affairs. Sinclair was not afraid to take on media titans such as William Randolph Hearst, who owned the nation’s largest chain of newspapers at the time.
Watchdogs and muckrakers act as a check on government action and corruption. They play an important part in exercising the role of a free press as a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. As Yale University professor and member of the Council on Foreign Relations Timothy Snyder writes, “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.”11 The media allows the public to understand what is happening in government in order to hold elected officials accountable. Or, perhaps more simply put, “A free press is important because it is the freedom upon which all of our other freedoms are contingent.”12
How free is the press? The answer is not black and white, as evidenced by the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Published every year by Reporters Without Borders, the Freedom Index measures freedom in 180 countries “based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region.”13 The map in Figure 12.3 below shows that the press is freer in some countries (in pink and purple on the map) than in others (in blue and green).
According to the index and as reflected in the map, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark have the freest presses in the world. Notably, Norway tries to discourage media concentration in order to ensure a variety of outlets, something that will be discussed in later parts of this chapter. The 2021 index ranked the United States 44th, after South Africa (32nd), Botswana (38th), and South Korea (42nd).
George Mason University professor Sam Lebovic explains that two main factors, the rise of concentration in ownership and increased state secrecy, are responsible for the inadequacy of press freedom in the United States, which is an ongoing and serious problem.14 The modern US media faces unprecedented struggles against declining viewership and revenues, which work to limit the number of outlets and decrease the number of working journalists. At the same time, legislation such as the Patriot Act, passed after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has made it more difficult for the press to verify state information because of increasing pressure on sources not to cooperate and prosecution of journalists who do ascertain information. In addition, the Trump administration further hampered press freedoms through the prosecution of news sources, public statements that discredited journalists, and encouragement of foreign leaders to take steps to restrict their own media.15 The future of press freedom in America, while still unstable due to media concentration and surveillance laws such as the Patriot Act, may show some signs of improvement; in a speech on Press Freedom Day in 2021, President Joe Biden decried the imprisonment of 274 reporters worldwide, criticized the lack of local media outlets, and said that the United States “recognize[s] the integral role a free press plays in building prosperous, resilient, and free societies.”16 Despite these laudatory comments about a free press, however, it is clear the United States faces challenges in protecting journalists’ ability to fulfill their roles.
A study of the United States and Latin America provides an example of how this idea of the importance of a free press is shared across cultures. In the study, journalists representing both cultures shared a common definition of a free press as one that functions without government pressure and to promote social and economic development.17 This study considered whether or not a free press is related to increased economic development, a question that to date has not been conclusively answered. While the notion that political freedoms (such as freedom of the press) should naturally encourage economic growth and increased standards of living is a common one, current research has not found conclusive evidence either supporting or refuting the claim.18
There is more of a consensus on the benefits of a free press when it comes to preventing corruption. Studies of press freedom around the world, conducted by scholars in England, Argentina, and Australia, confirm this theory.19 In this way, the watchdog role that the press plays is based on democratic ideals and has real-world effects for the public.
The Mediated Nature of Political Information
The political information most people receive is mediated information. What does this mean? Unless they work directly in government, most citizen’s understanding of politics comes completely from the media, whether via television news, podcasts, or social media feeds. The media may be a gatekeeper, but it is also a storyteller. As such, it is important to realize that what people see in the media is actually a manufactured view of the political world. Journalists and others who create the news follow routines and are influenced by institutional values that manifest themselves in media content. As Columbia University professor Herbert Gans writes in his study of the American media, “The news does not limit itself to reality judgments; it also contains values, or preference statements. This in turn makes it possible to suggest that there is, underlying the news, a picture of nation and society as it ought to be.”20 Gans acknowledges that professional journalists try to be objective, yet the news does in fact make judgments and value statements. For example, crime news alerts viewers to the idea that there are undesirable actors within society and that criminals should be punished. Judgments and value statements such as these are different from political bias; while some news outlets are overtly liberal or conservative, Gans’s study shows that the media produces stories with cultural values that people may not detect because they are so used to seeing stories presented this way. For example, according to Gans, ethnocentrism and altruistic democracy are two of the key enduring values in the news. Ethnocentrism in the news refers to the idea that the American media values the United States above all other nations. This manifests most obviously in war coverage, where the press rarely questions American involvement—and to do so would be unpatriotic. In a similar vein, Gans explains that the American news media emphasize an altruistic democracy, the ideal held up by the media that politics should be based on public service and for the public interest.21 In these ways, the news makes statements about what is right and what is wrong and presents political news through these lenses.
Journalists also share other professional values as to what makes a “good” news story, such as proximity, negativity, scope (how big is the story?), timeliness, and unexpectedness (novelty).22 Because journalists share these professional values, there is a certain homogeneous quality to the news, otherwise known as pack journalism. This means that people receive the same type of news story repeatedly, though this has been changing since the advent of online news, a topic that will be discussed later in the chapter. Journalists’ common ideas about what should be in the news and why color their coverage and presentation of the news—and, as a result, the public’s perception of politics.
It is important here to note that the concept of news values differs across countries—what is newsworthy in the United States may not be in other nations—and the role of the media differs as well. A study on the news in Japan found that strong cultural forces and local needs drive how news is produced and delivered.23 Other scholars have found that Western news organizations highlight human interest stories, while Arabic news focuses more on social responsibility and Islamic values.24 University of Leicester Professor Vincent Campbell echoes the sentiment that news organizations in different countries are fueled by different values and that this influences what stories their audiences see. In authoritarian countries, journalists focus less on performing the watchdog role and more on promoting state activities.25 This is the case in countries such as North Korea and China, where the state government runs the media.
Related to the idea that the media in large part decides what is a good news story is the concept of the media’s gatekeeping role and its agenda-setting powers. In other words, according to agenda-setting theory, the media decides both what to ignore or filter out and what to show the public. As University of Texas professor Maxwell McCombs and University of North Carolina professor Donald Shaw write, “In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position.”26 Whether it is a producer who selects the topics for the evening news or an algorithm that creates a social media news feed, people know what is “news” by what is fed to them, they know what is important based on how often it gets airtime, and they understand that there are lead stories and stories that don’t matter very much. The public doesn’t make these decisions; professionals within the news industry make them for the public. (Later parts of this chapter will discuss how this power dynamic has changed thanks to social media and how, in many ways, it is no longer media professionals who select what the public sees.)
If the media decides which stories to present, it also has a hand in deciding how stories are presented. According to framing theory, the way the media frames political information can affect people’s understanding of it. University of Illinois professor David Tewksbury and University of Wisconsin professor Dietram A. Scheufele explain:
“Artists know that the frame placed around a painting can affect how viewers interpret and react to the painting itself. . . . Journalists—often subconsciously—engage in essentially the same process when they decide how to describe the political world. They choose images and words that have the power to influence how audiences interpret and evaluate issues and policies.”27
For example, a study on gubernatorial races found that female candidates were more likely to be framed in terms of personal characteristics than their male counterparts, who were more likely to be framed in terms of their positions on policy issues.28 In a separate study, researchers found that one common way the Dutch national media framed news on the European Union (EU) was in terms of assigning responsibility for social problems to the government. This study suggests that the Dutch media’s presentation of political news reflects the public expectation that the government will provide social welfare programs.29 By highlighting certain aspects of a story and ignoring others, frames can affect people’s judgments and opinions on policy issues, and just as with agenda setting, elected officials fight to make sure they are framed in the correct light.
The public, and individual viewers, should know that while the media is a critical tool that aids people’s political decision-making, it is guided by professional values that dictate the content. Individuals’ views on politics can sometimes be out of their control, but they can work to assemble a better picture of the world by turning to a variety of media outlets and becoming aware of what goes into story selection. While internal pressures (such as professional norms) or external forces (such as authoritarian governments) can influence how the media portrays information, ownership can also affect what the public sees. The next section will examine the different types of media—and, perhaps more importantly, who owns them and how this affects their role in the political world.