Will democracy collapse without journalism to provide political information?

December 4, 2008

Polling Station by hugovkIt’s a question that tends to assume there’s only one answer – yes. Journalism is both an information source and a watchdog. Without it, democracy would seize up. So is it true? I think the answer might actually be – no. And the reason has more to do with our democracy than with our journalism.

Let’s start with British democracy’s view of itself. For me it’s pretty much summed up in a campaign encouraging participation in local elections in North London. Posters run the slogan: No Vote. No Voice. No Excuse.

More accurate, but less punchy, would be: If you cast your vote in a marginal seat, you can elect a councillor who might have the balance of power over a budget that is 80% hypothecated by central government, and whose remaining powers to raise or dispense or raise cash are highly circumscribed.

In our representative system, voting offers a choice rather than a voice. Rousseau’s dismissal of Britain’s ancien electoral system still rings true:

The people of England regards itself as free: but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it and it is nothing.

Being informed is not part of the democratic bargain in the UK. The law imposes no educational or informational competence on voters. Given compulsory secondary schooling and a voting age of 18 it could be argued that some educational experience, although not attainment, is implicit in the vote.

The consequence of not living in a participatory democracy is that the public’s information needs are really quite modest. This isn’t a popular idea.

We prefer to be a bit more romantic about the intelligence of the average citizen. Advocates of public service broadcasting make their case for news by claiming that “central to the idea of the democratic society is that of the well-informed and self-determining individual.” So do we need journalism to inform people’s limited choices?

In the 1950s an economist called Anthony Downs argued that the democratic system did not incentivize voters to become informed. His position? Because an individual vote is so valueless, people who try to become well informed about politics must be doing so either for instrumentally irrational reasons, such as perceived civic duty; or because they are ignorant of the odds of their votes making a difference, meaning that they cannot have rationally weighed those odds against the costs of being well informed. (The corollary, of course, is that elites like political information because they see ways of influencing the political process beyond the ballot box.)

Downs argued that given its low ‘return,’ most people would want to pay nothing for their political information, and he identified seven ways they could get it for free. Six of them have nothing to do with journalism. The first on Downs’ list is the information provided by the government itself.

In other words the public data and reports that are made available (in his days through libraries, but now online) for politically minded citizens to acquire information. And with independent government bodies, like the National Audit Office, there’s both watchdog function and information.

The only type of free political information that equates to modern political journalism is that from entertainment sources (like TV and newspapers) which “sometimes yield political information as a surplus benefit from what is intended as an entertainment investment … Some citizens also seek straight political information purely for its entertainment value because they enjoy political rivalry and warfare.”

If we took that seventh source out of the mix and beefed up the others would our democracy be any the worse? Discuss…

[Originally posted here.]

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Seamus McCauley December 7, 2008 at 12:11

I turn as ever on such questions to Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, which shows that for all the information to which voters ostensibly have access they vote according to a predictable set of systematic biases and misconceptions.

Since the seven or eight existing sources of political information we have confer no measurable benefit on the quality of the electorate’s decision-making process I have to agree with you that the loss of one of them would be trivial for democracy.

There’s also an issue as to whether it matters very much at all which of two functionally-indistinguishable branches of the same oligarchy we congratulate ourselves for kicking out every four or five years (see amongst others Crossman‘s Plato Today for a view on how long this has been the situation).


Adrian Monck December 7, 2008 at 15:35

Thanks Seamus – on the last point, isn’t it valuable for the element of uncertainty that it injects into the system?


Mark Watson April 6, 2009 at 04:33

Firstly, remember we must check our premises in any discussion, and journalism, which has been regarded as the fourth estate by Burke (attributed), he thought they held power (and I suppose they did at the time) over the clergy, the nobles, and the commons.

Today, at least in the USSA, the press is little more than a stenographer for the state (Lew Rockwell’s expression for lapdog media). Watch any white house press briefing the last few decades and it is easy to see if a member of the press wants in the room, they will toe the line for the administration, all grandstanding to the contrary notwithstanding.

We saw it on fox news when Shawn Hannity and co. routinely disrespected Ron Paul, and when beltway-koch-libertarian(sic) magazine (t)Reason did a Ron Paul hit piece. The other Ailes-boy Rush Limbaugh would not permit any discussion of Paul who had the most money of all republicans going into Iowa. We were unimpressed. We do not expect Ailes to tolerate Napolitano much longer- he’s too much like us. Great show though as long as he is still on- internet only.

They (lapdog media) should be reporting the truth,but they are not uncovering it. When they do find it out, they are paid to steer clear of reporting it. They do not serve their subscriber’s interests. Subscription journalism is going away- now we will have Nascar/Indycar media- Wherever advertising dollars go, is where journalism will go. Advertising dollars are corporate. Corporations receive kickbacks from government through lobbyists. Boeing gets no unfavorable advertising, and yet you should learn what they are doing to our very own borders.

Game over.

Soon even blog media will be Hannitized, opposing points of view will not be discussed in earnest- only at most paid lipservice. Cache will be deleted. It will be just like 1984.

Newspeak is already here.

Have a double-plus-good day and enjoy your chocolate ration.


Cynical- Hell Yes.

I do not get cable- I watch Hulu and for my entertainment. When I want news, I go to LewRockwell.com and DrudgeReport.com


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