Media’s Role in Democracy

Problem Definition

One of the core ideas of democracy is that governments ought to do what their citizens want them to do. Or, to put it in another way, governments ought to pay attention to public opinion – to respond to the policy preferences of the people. Public deliberation is essential to democracy, in order to ensure that the public’s policy preferences – upon which democratic decisions should be based – are informed, enlightened, and authentic. In modern societies, public deliberation is largely mediated, with professional communicators rather than ordinary citizens talking to each other and to the public through mass media of communication. Thus, the mass communications media are the connective tissue of democracy. They are the principal means through which citizens and their elected representatives communicate in their reciprocal efforts to inform and influence. This mediated nature of public deliberation places an important responsibility on the shoulders of the public communicators, since a failure in effectively communicating public opinion would affect democratic decisions and vice versa.

The present paper aims to understand the complex relation between democracy and the media, what the former requires of the latter, and whether the latter is meeting the needs of the former.


To examine the multi-dimensional linkages between the media, democracy, good governance and peaceful development, and to identify and look into the constraints that limit the media’s ability to play a more constructive role in democracy.

Literature Review

The mass media constitute the backbone of democracy. The media are supplying the political information that voters base their decisions on. They identify problems in our society and serve as a medium for deliberation. They are also the watchdogs that we rely on for uncovering errors and wrongdoings by those who have power. It is therefore reasonable to require that the media perform to certain standards with respect to these functions, and our democratic society rests on the assumption that they do, as mentioned by McQuail (1993). Gurevitch and Blumler (1990) identify the most important democratic functions of the media, which include surveillance of socio-political developments, identifying the most relevant issues, providing a platform for debate across a diverse range of views, holding officials to account for the way they exercise power, provide incentives for citizens to learn, choose, and become involved in the political process, and resist efforts of forces outside the media to subvert their independence. According to McQuail (1993) though, these normative expectations for a democratic press are not universally accepted.

There is however a growing concern that the mass media are not fulfilling these functions properly. Media scholars observe that commercial mass media controlled by a few multinational conglomerates have become an antidemocratic force reinforcing the status quo (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). The news are more entertaining than informing, supplying mostly gossip, scandals, sex, and violence. Political news are more about personalities than about their ideologies. In the absence of serious debate, voters are left with paid political propaganda containing only meaningless slogans making them disinterested and cynical about politics (Barnett, 2002).

James Curran attempts to resolve this by attempting to provide a fresh look at democracy’s requirements for the press in his essay ‘What Democracy Requires of the Media’ (2005). He notes that the familiar job description captured in the classical texts – the prescription to “inform, scrutinise, debate, and represent” – gives increasingly vague guidance. While he views these functions as vital, he argues that they be revisited and rethought. Most notably, Curran moves away from the usual prescription that all journalism and journalists should behave in similar ways. Instead, he astutely contends that the distinct functions of democracy may require different news outlets to act in varying ways – pushing individual’s attention to the workings of the news media system as whole, not to the performance of specific news organisations. To Curran, the typical “media-centred account” understates the significance of other connections between the people and their governments, and it obscures how the press facilitates communication among and between elites such as officials and political activists.


The mass media are often referred to as the fourth branch of government because of the power they wield and the overseeing function they exercise. The media’s key role in democratic governance has been recognized since the late 17th century, and remains a fundamental principle in modern-day democratic theory and practice. Today, despite the mass media’s propensity for sleaze, sensationalism and superficiality, the notion of the media as watchdog, as guardian of the public interest, and as a conduit between governors and the governed remains deeply ingrained.

The reality, however, is that the media in new and restored democracy do not always live up to the ideal. They are hobbled by stringent laws, monopolistic ownership, and sometimes, the threat of brute force. State controls are not the only constraints. Serious reporting is difficult to sustain in competitive media markets that put a premium on the shallow and sensational. Moreover, the media are sometimes used as proxies in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust. In these cases, the media contribute to public cynicism and democratic decay.

In spite of these constraints, in many fledgling democracies, the media have been able to assert their role in buttressing and deepening democracy. Investigative reporting, which in some cases has led to the ouster of presidents and the fall of corrupt governments, has made the media an effective and credible watchdog and boosted its credibility among the public. Investigative reporting has also helped accustom officials to an inquisitive press and helped build a culture of openness and disclosure that has made democratically elected governments more accountable. Training for journalists, manuals that arm reporters with research tools, and awards for investigative reporting have helped create a corps of independent investigative journalists in several new and restored democracies.

Democracy requires the active participation of citizens. Ideally, the media should keep citizens engaged in the business of governance by informing, educating and mobilising the public. In many new democracies, radio has become the medium of choice, as it is less expensive and more accessible. FM and community radio have been effective instruments for promoting grassroots democracy by airing local issues, providing an alternative source of information to official channels, and reflecting ethnic and linguistic diversity. The Internet, too, can play such a role, because of its interactivity, relatively low costs of entry and freedom from state control.

The media can also help build peace and social consensus, without which democracy is threatened. The media can provide warring groups mechanisms for mediation, representation and voice so they can settle their differences peacefully. Unfortunately, the media have sometimes fanned the flames of discord by taking sides, reinforcing prejudices, muddling the facts and peddling half-truths. “Peace journalism,” which is being promoted by various NGOs, endeavours to promote reconciliation through careful reportage that gives voice to all sides of a conflict and resists explanation for violence in terms of innate enmities. Training and the establishment of mechanisms whereby journalists from opposite sides of conflict can interact with the other side, including other journalists representing divergent views, have helped propagate peace journalism.

The media can play a positive role in democracy only if there is an enabling environment that allows them to do so. They need the requisite skills for the kind of in-depth reporting that a new democracy requires. There should also be mechanisms to ensure they are held accountable to the public and that ethical and professional standards are upheld. Media independence is guaranteed if media organizations are financially viable, free from intervention of media owners and the state, and operate in a competitive environment. The media should also be accessible to as wide a segment of society as possible. Efforts to help the media should be directed toward: the protection of press rights, enhancing media accountability, building media capacity and democratising media access.

Theoretical Perspectives

Democracy is impossible without independent media. This is a precept that is deeply ingrained in democratic theory and practice. Enlightenment theorists have argued that publicity and openness provide the best protection against tyranny and the excesses of arbitrary rule. In the early 1700s, the French political philosopher Montesquieu, raging against the secret accusations delivered by Palace courtiers to the French King, prescribed publicity as the cure for the abuse of power. English and American thinkers later in that century agreed with Montesquieu, recognizing the importance of the press in making officials aware of the public’s discontents and allowing governments to rectify their errors (Holmes, 1991). Since then, the press has been widely proclaimed as the “Fourth Estate,” a coequal branch of government that provides the check and balance without which governments cannot be effective. For this reason, the democrats in the US have always tended to take the Enlightenment’s instrumentalist view of the press. Thomas Jefferson, for all his bitterness against journalistic criticism celebrated the press, arguing that only through the exchange of information and opinion through the press would the truth emerge. Thus the famous Jeffersonian declaration: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”

Modern-day democrats are as hyperbolic as Jefferson in their praise of the press. Despite the present-day mass media’s propensity for sensationalism and superficiality, they are still seen as essential democratic tools. Contemporary democratic theory appreciates the media’s role in ensuring governments are held accountable. In both new and old democracies, the notion of the media as watchdog and not merely a passive recorder of events has been widely accepted. Governments, it is argued, cannot be held accountable if citizens are ill informed about the actions of officials and institutions. The watchdog press is guardian of the public interest, warning citizens against those who are doing them arm. A fearless and effective watchdog is critical in fledgling democracies where institutions are weak and pummelled by political pressure. When legislatures, judiciaries and other oversight bodies are powerless against the mighty or are themselves corruptible, the media are often left as the only check against the abuse of power. This requires that they play a heroic role, exposing the excesses of presidents, prime ministers, legislators and magistrates despite the risks.

The media also serve as a conduit between governors and the governed and as an arena for public debate that leads to more intelligent policy- and decision-making. Indeed, the Enlightenment tradition of the press as public forum remains strong. The press, wrote U.S. television journalist Bill Moyers in the early 1990s, should draw citizens to the public square and “provide a culture of community conversation by activating inquiry on serious public issues” (Moyers, 1993). In new democracies, the expectation is that the media would help build a civic culture and a tradition of discussion and debate which was not possible during the period of authoritarian rule.

Not just journalists, but eminent contemporary thinkers like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen ascribe to the press the same cleansing powers that Enlightenment philosophers had envisioned. Sen outlined the need for “transparency guarantees” such as a free press and the free flow of information. Information and critical public discussion are, according to Sen, “an inescapably important requirement of good public policy.” These guarantees “have a clear instrumental role in preventing corruption, financial irresponsibility and underhanded dealings.” Sen sees the media as a watchdog not just against corruption but also against disaster. “There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy”, he argues. “A free press and the practice of democracy contribute greatly to bringing out information that can have an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention… a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famine could have” (Sen, 1999)

Since the late 1990s, donor countries and multilateral organizations have also been preaching the virtues of a free press not just in ensuring good and accountable governance but also as a tool for poverty reduction, popular empowerment and national reconciliation.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says that addressing poverty requires not just a transfer of economic resources to the needy but also making information available to the poor so that they can participate more meaningfully in political and social life. After all, the poor cannot assert their rights if they don’t know what these are. If they are unaware of the laws and procedures for availing themselves of their entitlements or the mechanisms they can use to remedy their deprivations, they will always remain poor. Democracy cannot take root if the poor and powerless are kept out of the public sphere. The argument is that effective media are the key as they can provide the information poor people need to take part in public life.

Ideally, the media should provide voice to those marginalized because of poverty, gender, or ethnic or religious affiliation. By giving these groups a place in the media, their views – and their afflictions – become part of mainstream public debate and hopefully contribute to a social consensus that the injustices against them ought to be redressed. In this way, the media also contribute to the easing of social conflicts and to promoting reconciliation among divergent social groups.

All these are extrapolations on the media’s role as a ‘virtual town hall’ or ‘public square’. By providing information and acting as a forum for public debate, the media play a catalytic role, making reforms possible through the democratic process and in the end strengthening democratic institutions and making possible public participation, without which democracy is mere sham.

Actual Constraints

Today, in most countries that have undergone a democratic transition since the 1980s, the press is an important player on the political stage. Journalists are often feared by politicians because they have succeeded in uncovering corruption, the abuse of power and assorted malfeasance. They are also relentlessly wooed because a bad press can mean the end of a political career. Policies have been changed, reforms initiated and corrupt officials – including presidents and prime ministers – ousted partly because of media exposés. In many new democracies, an adversarial press is part of the political process and it is hard to imagine how governments would function without it.

Yet, despite constitutional guarantees and in many cases, also wide public support, the media in fledgling democracies have been hobbled by stringent laws, monopolistic ownership and sometimes, brute force. In 2002, 20 journalists were killed because of their work and 136 were in prison because authorities were displeased with their reporting. Many of these victims were reporting in new democracies (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2003).

State controls are not the only constraints. Serious reporting is difficult to sustain in media markets that put a premium on the shallow and the sensational. A media explosion often follows the fall of dictatorships. After Ferdinand Marcos was toppled in 1986, for example, scores of new newspapers and radio stations sprang up in the Philippines, as citizens basked in the novelty of a free press. In Indonesia, hundreds of new newspapers opened after the 32-year reign of President Soharto ended in 1998. Indonesians called it the “euphoria press.” Euphoria is a wonderful thing, but it does not always give birth to good journalism. The same is the case for Central and Eastern Europe and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, where there was a lack of skilled journalists to staff the news organisations created by the media boom. The boom also results in intense competition, which often means racing for the headlines and sacrificing substance and depth.

The competition for the market has meant that the media in most new democracies have succumbed to the global trend of “dumbing down” the news. This is especially the case in television, where reports on crime and entertainment drown out the more important news of the day. The stress on glitzy effects and bite-size news reports leaves no time for serious and in-depth discussion of the issues that matter. The result is that public discourse is dumbed down as well, as both officials and citizens respond to the “infotainment” type of news they get. Moreover, in many newsrooms, even in affluent countries, tight budgets do not allow for the investment in time and resources that solid journalism requires. Even as the media in many countries are a profitable enterprise, media managers would rather put their money on technology and effects rather than on reportage. In addition, journalists often do not have the experience and the training to do the kind of contextualised reporting that a new democracy needs. Even if they did, the pecuniary and political interests of media owners limit the freedom of journalists to conduct exposés.

In many countries, ownership of the media is controlled by a few vested business and political interests. A 2001 study of 97 countries by the World Bank shows that throughout the world, media monopolies dominate. The study says: “In our sample of 97 countries, only four percent of media enterprises are widely held. Less than two percent have other ownership structures (apart from family or state control), and a mere two percent are employee owned. On average family-controlled newspapers account for 57 percent of our sample, and families control 34 percent of television stations. State ownership is vast. On average the state controls approximately 29 percent of newspapers and 60 percent of television stations. The state owns a huge share – 72 percent – of radio stations. The media industry is therefore owned overwhelmingly by parties most likely to extract private benefits of control” (Djankov et al., 2001).

Indeed, media owners have not been shy about extracting such private benefits. In the new democracies, media magnates have used their newspapers or broadcast stations to promote their business interests, cut down their rivals, and in other ways advance their political or business agenda. State ownership, meanwhile, allows government functionaries to clamp down on critical reporting and recalcitrant reporters and enables the government to propagate its unchallenged views among the people. The interests of media owners often determine media content and allow the media to be manipulated by vested interests.

In some instances, the media are used as proxies in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust. In these cases, the media can be anti-democratic, contributing to cynicism about government and democratic decay. The public loses confidence in the media and in democratic institutions in general. The result is public apathy and democratic breakdown.


The preceding discussion described the ideal role that media should play in a democracy, and found that the media was not able to fulfil its ideal in practice. It identified various constraints that prevented the media from realising its goals in the democratic setup. Consequently, it may be suggested that the mass media can make full use of their potential to contribute to the consolidation of democracy if their rights are protected. Moreover they need to have the requisite skills for the kind of textured and in-depth reporting that new democracies require. Because the media are powerful, there should also be mechanisms to ensure they are held accountable to the public and that ethical and professional standards are upheld. Media independence can be guaranteed if media organizations are financially viable, free from the intervention of media owners and operate in a competitive media environment. Finally, the media’s power can be enhanced if they have broad reach in, and support from, society. Democracy suffers if large segments of society are inaccessible to the media and therefore excluded from the arena of public debate. Thus, apposite efforts need to be made, especially in developing countries, to provide media access to their entire populations. In this way, the media can be used to strengthen democracy in these nations.


–        Chomsky, Noam (1997) ‘Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda’, Seven Stories Press, New York.

–        Committee to Protect Journalists, (2003) ‘Attacks on the Press in 2002’, Committee to Protect Journalists, New York.

–        Lichtenberg, Judith (1990) ‘Democracy and the Mass Media’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

–        McQuail, Denis (2005) ‘McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory’, Sage Publications, London.

–        Sen, Amartya (1999) ‘Development and Freedom’, Anchor Books, New York.


About sadianasr

Road safety x digital, social, policy, media at SaveLife. AIR, Urban Justice, CAIR, ICGC, UNDP alum.

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