By Mel Bunce
Journalism is facing a profound financial crisis. Around the world, news outlets are closing, and journalists are losing their jobs. Should we be worried? Journalism is often referred to as the ‘fourth estate’ – an institution that is necessary for democracy to function. But what does this actually mean?
If we go back to first principles, we can see that journalism plays three crucial roles in a democratic system. First, it provides the information that citizens need to vote. For countries to hold meaningful elections, citizens need to know what is happening. What are the big issues? How are different groups suggesting these are addressed? Are government interventions working?
Barbara Kingsolver captures this idea in her novel The Poisonwood Bible, set in the newly formed Democratic Republic of Congo. In the outer reaches of the country, the Congolese have not heard of the country’s upcoming election; they do not know the people running for office, or how the outcome may affect their lives. Nonetheless, an official turns up and asks them to vote by putting pebbles in baskets representing candidates. The process is surreal and absurd – without knowing what the candidates stand for, the vote cannot be meaningful.
As news organisations around the world close down, we are seeing the emergence of what some have called news deserts – areas where there is no original, local news at all. Studies of these areas reveal that citizens are less informed, voter turnout is lower, and there is greater political polarisation.
Watchdog of the powerful
The media’s second job in a democracy is its most famous: to act as a watchdog of the powerful. We tend to associate this watchdog role with the most celebrated investigative journalists: for example, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, whose Watergate investigation led to the resignation of President Nixon. Or the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe who revealed the Catholic Church’s extensive cover-ups of child abuse.
But critical journalism also involves much more mundane work. It includes monitoring the day-to-day exercise of power at all levels of society, and asking questions like: which businesses are awarded government contracts? Do prisons and schools deliver quality services? Are environmental regulations followed? Although these questions might appear pedestrian, they can have life-and-death consequences.
In 2017, a horrific fire in London’s Grenfell Tower killed more than seventy people. Observers have argued that, with greater journalistic scrutiny, the tragedy may have been averted. The risk of a catastrophic fire on the estate had been raised repeatedly, including in local council meetings. Historically, there were journalists assigned to attend these council meetings, who would have asked questions and followed up on residents’ concerns. But these watchdogs have all but disappeared in recent years, as local news production in the UK has shrunk.
Of course, we cannot know the difference that more scrutiny might have made. But we do know that the mere presence of a journalist at a council meeting can change how officials behave. As MIT media researcher Ethan Zuckerman argues: ‘Only a few dozen people might read the minutes of last night’s meeting at City Hall, but it matters immensely that a seasoned political reporter is scanning those notes carefully, looking for possible scandals or abuse and threatening to splash them on the front page, if officials don’t behave ethically.’
Research shows that critical journalism makes government decisions and spending more efficient. It also makes businesses behave more ethically. One study has even shown that, as local newspapers close down, oil and gas plants pollute more.
Public sphere for debate
The media’s third and final job is to provide a platform for debate. This idea is famously associated with Jürgen Habermas, who argued that democracy required a space ‘outside the control of the state, where citizens could debate the important issues of the day’.
All communities need to make difficult decisions about priorities, values and shared resources. Who should pay to protect the environment? Should we spend our limited resources on the library or the stadium? In a representative democracy, we elect leaders to make these decisions on our behalf. But one vote every few years is a very blunt tool – and the media is one of the few channels through which citizens can make their concerns heard between elections.
And there is evidence that – for better or worse – politicians listen and respond to news coverage. In the international arena this has been referred to as the ‘CNN effect’, where extensive news coverage of an issue can, on occasion, prompt officials to change their foreign policy. Domestically, there is ample evidence that news coverage takes some issues and makes them more salient, and this creates pressure on the government to act.
Because of this influence, it’s crucial that journalism represents the diverse concerns of the community, and not just the issues that the majority (or an elite) care about. When we talk about the housing crisis, for example, we need to hear from those struggling to rent – as well as aspiring house owners and landlords. Unfortunately, this is an area where news outlets often fail. And many worry that journalism’s financial crisis will only make this worse because the news outlets most likely to survive are those catering to wealthy demographics. This could lead to growing inequality in both who has access to information – and whose concerns are amplified to leaders.
When the Founding Fathers deliberated on how to govern the United States, Thomas Jefferson argued that a critical press must be the very first institution, from which all the others would follow. Without newspapers, Jefferson reasoned, leaders could – and would – ignore the wishes of their citizens and democracy itself would be at risk. This is why we should worry about the intense pressures facing journalism today, and support the industry where we can.
Extract from The Broken Estate: Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth World, by Mel Bunce, published by Bridget Williams Books.
New Zealander Mel Bunce researches and teaches journalism at the acclaimed Department of Journalism at City, University of London. The Broken Estate: Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth World is a BWB Text.