Thursday, December 07, 2006


Newspapers and democracy

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who was a keen observer of American life, said some 170 years ago: "You can't have real newspapers without democracy, and you can't have democracy without newspapers."

While I am still reading the national report from the national issue forums on revitalizing democracy I am starting to see more discussion about the role of newspapers in our democracy.

One speech, the text of which is online, caught my eye: "The Role of Newspapers in Building Citizenship," by Jan Schaffer Executive Director Pew Center for Civic Journalism given in São Paulo, Brazil on September 13, 2004.

Here are a few comments from that speech worth sharing in the context of this important public issue.

"It's no longer enough for journalists themselves to think they are doing a good job. Readers have to agree that a free press plays an essential role in our democratic society for journalists to merit their special place."

Survey after survey shows that American citizens think the linebetweenn entertainment and news has become blurred (at best).

Journalists seem to be unable to "get it right." The news media are spending more time serving elites than ordinary citizens. People tell pollsters that the media is out of touch with the public. They also say that journalism is motivated by commercial interests, which are driving sensational coverage.

What is the state of U.S. journalism now? As a business it has become very profit driven. As a product many say journalism has become something to watch instead of believe. Adding to the difficulty are problems with reporters who ask loaded questions, expect fast answers, begin stories with a mission or pre-existing belief, along with some high profile ethical problems in the profession.

Do these factors impact civic engagement in America? People are not voting, not volunteering and not participating in our democracy. Is this because of problems in the news media? Or, is the source of the problem much deeper, even spiritual?

"The Pew Trust feared that democracy was broken. And they wondered, in part, if it was because journalism was broken, too. Among the questions civic journalists asked: Were we creating a nation of spectators watching a daily civic freak show instead of a nation of citizen participants engaged in the issues and the choices that must be made in a self-governing society?"

Jan Schaffer ended with the interesting thoughts on what civic journalists wanted to see. She asked:

"Is it possible to: retain the media’s watchdog role, spotlighting corruption and injustices; abandon the attack dog role that seemed to be just creating a lot of noise in a very noisy media environment; add the duties of a guide dog helping people figure out what kind of roles they could play in a democracy beyond simply casting a ballot. In other words, could you hold citizens accountable for doing their jobs as citizens, much as you would hold public officials accountable for their actions in public office?"

What do you think? Is our current state of journalism part of the problem in our democracy?
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