Does Democracy Need the News?

16 Oct 2010

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John Nichols political journalist for "The Nation Magazine" and author of the book, "The Death and Life of American Journalism," says, as a country, America is very good at exporting its pathologies.

As a result, the culling of journalists is playing out in every country in the world and having a negative impact on the quality and quantity of traditional journalism.

This is a worrying development because journalism is intricately linked to democracy. There is nowhere in the world where journalism is not the underpinning of democracy.

When someone gets information that "power" does not want them to and communicates this to the public, they are committing the act of journalism. And, when we dramatically decrease the number of people who perform that act in a country, we dramatically decrease the ability of citizens to get the information that they need.

You can't have a free society without newspapers, says Nichols and freedom of speech must be protected.

However, speaking about problems with current news sources and using the American city of Baltimore as a case study, Nichols reports that while new media (blogs, online social networking and so on) has filled some of the void created by layoffs in the traditional media, traditional media is still the predominant source of information for people.

The problem, however, is that traditional media is producing significantly less news.

Nichols refers to a Pew Centre study, which found that there are two ways that people get information in Baltimore.

One way is through traditional journalism, where journalists investigate and report problems on the ground and take these issues to people in power.  In this way, journalists "speak truth to power."

However, the other way is that "power speaks its truth to people." For example, people in power may hold a press conference, put a video out, they somehow manage to get people to talk about their issue. "Power" decides what the debate is, what we should be thinking about it and what the parameters of the debate are. In this way, they frame our discourse.

The Pew Centre studied how much information is received from the traditional journalism model and how much is acquired from people in power. They found that 86% of stories were "power speaking to people" and only 14% of stories came from traditional journalism, where journalists speak truth to power.

This trend is not limited to Baltimore. To put it into perspective and looking broadly at all of America, in 1960 there was one journalist for every public relations (PR) person in the US. In 1980, there was one journalist for every 1.2 PR people in the US. Today there is one journalist for every four PR people in the US. 

"Power" has always spoken its truth, but now "power" is shouting out every other voice and dominating our discourse, argues Nichols.

Nichols contends that if George Orwell writer of "1984" were to comment on present day media dynamics in the US, he would likely argue that in his day, the problem was "big brother is watching you."

Now, however, the real problem is that "we are all watching big brother" 24 hours, seven days a week. There is around the clock news - crime, sports, weather, tips to lose weight - but very little real journalism and very little of the information that people need to govern their own lives.

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