Journalism’s functions in a democracy

October 7, 2008

What are the functions of journalism in a democracy? In an article probably drawn from his forthcoming book, Why Democracies Need An Unlovable Press, (order yours now) Michael Schudson gives six:

  1. Informing the public
  2. Investigation
  3. Analysis
  4. Social surveillance
  5. Public forum
  6. Mobilization

But the key quote for me (and the reason, incidentally, that I find the rationale for BBC journalism so politically enervating) is this observation on the US media:

[T]oday’s objective, information-providing, and non-partisan investigative functions of leading news organizations may have de-mobilizing effects. They provide people with information, but they do not advise them on what to with it.

If anything they seem to imply that nothing can be done, that politicians are only interested in their own careers.

The undertone of cynicism in news reports may well be a factor in encouraging an undertone of cynicism in the general public.

And so we’re de-mob happy…

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Doskoch October 8, 2008 at 04:40

It’s not the MSM’s job to tell people what to do with information.

That is the role of the political process.

Mr. Schudson would have to provide examples of how the media imbues the public with an “undertone of cynicism.”

One could fairly argue that an average citizen, watching the opportunistic machinations of politicians, might develop an undertone of cynicism on their own.


Adrian Monck October 8, 2008 at 11:40

Bill – I guess Schudson is saying that the MSM isn’t helping people feel they can do anything. Sure they can make up their own minds, but politics is never not going to be a dirty business.

As Schumpeter said, parties are just coalitions of people who would like to exercise power.


Bill Doskoch October 9, 2008 at 04:36

I guess we’re getting back to the public journalism debates of the 1990s.

Schudson seems to be suggesting it’s not enough for news organizations to provide news; maybe they also have to provide concurrent civics lessons for people to see value in being informed about their communities.

But as I recall, public journalism never really took off, either in the U.S. or Canada (my country). I’d like to know why not. Does Schudson offer any thought? Was the concept of public journalism ever discussed much or acted upon in Britain?

And you’re right; politics is a dirty business. That’s one reason why fewer than one per cent of Canadians belong to a political party and why our voter turnout in 2006 was a whopping 64 per cent (Canadians will be going to the polls on Oct. 14 and turnout at advance polls this year is down from the same period in 2006).

It would be good on so many levlels to reverse this decline in societal engagement. I look forward to reading whatever ideas you can pass along through this forum (I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t picked up your book yet. :) )


Adrian Monck October 9, 2008 at 10:07

I keep meaning to write a post: “The decline of politics as a leisure pursuit.”

In the bad old 19C, political party membership embraced choral singing, group outings and subsidised bars – and yes, even uniforms.

I’m sure that’s not what you mean by societal engagement but…

Today in Britain, three times more people belong to an organization devoted to preserving ancient buildings than all the political parties combined. A lot of people want to spend time free from politics.

Me? I like politics and argument. But there is a flip side. Having been to several places with high levels of societal and civic engagement – where everyone had a political opinion to share with you – there was usually a war going on.


Sangeet Sangroula December 15, 2009 at 06:43

The Function of Journalism is to collect, edit and publish or broadcast or podcast the news, views and articles. For that very news, views articles etc. we public are informed, educated, encourged as well as entertained toooooooo.


Naziru A Tukur March 16, 2012 at 19:01

I suppose these functions are missimg something has to do with developing nations like my own, Nigeria.
Hope to see the listing embraces my reality one day.


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