Why is Journalism needed in a Democratic Society?

The most important function of journalism is to convey information.

Conveying information is an important part of the democratic decision-making system, as it brings transparency into society and for its part makes sure that the made decisions go along with the people’s sense of justice.
To make sure that there is a chance for civil advocacy, it is important that the citizens are informed of decisions already when they are being prepared.

In other words, the journalists’ mission is to oversee the work of government officials on behalf of the citizens. Press, or nowadays media in general is occasionally called the watchdog of society or the fourth estate. Based on the Montesquieu’s tripartite system, the other estates in modern democracies are often referred to branches of a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary.

The watchdog refers to the fact that journalists are supposed to guard the policymakers’ actions. In the recent years social media has been proposed to be the fifth estate, where the work of journalists is scrutinized.

Journalism also acts as a two-way channel between the public and policymakers.

On the one hand, journalism conveys information to the citizens about what is happening in society. On the other hand, journalism lets the policymakers know what kinds of effects their previous decisions have had and what kinds of decisions have been made elsewhere. Journalism also lets the policymakers
know what the public expects of them.

In addition to conveying information, good journalism also interprets the world. Journalism explains things and phenomena in an easy and accessible way, describes the cause-effect-relationships of events and provides background information on issues and decisions.

Journalism brings the events close to people’s everyday lives and shows
what kind of an impact they have on a regular citizen’s life.

Journalism’s functions also include the creation of a sense of solidarity in society, which can happen for example through large newsworthy events. Also, by establishing solidarity, journalism also aims to maintain peace in society.

Nowadays people’s consumption of media is not consistent. Instead, people tend to collect information from different sources. That is why ever larger news events are needed to affect people collectively. Assassinations, wars and acts of terrorism feel like turning points in history largely because of their wide news coverage.

Media has the power both to blow things out of proportion
and to sweep them under the rug.

Widely covered events become a part of history, and the audience following the events feel that they are experiencing a historical event.

Media has the power both to blow things out of proportion and to sweep them under the rug.

Journalism also tries to whet people’s appetite for learning new things. Journalism entertains, evokes emotion and experiences. It offers new perspectives and stories which people can relate to.

The profession of journalism is a public and social occupation. Journalists as professionals both support and sustain the credibility of the decision-making system and maintain its functions. The role of a journalist and their position in relation to the use of social power is, however, a more complicated question.

The most important values of a journalist are impartiality, independence of commercial and political interests and responsibility.

Thus, even if a journalist handles social issues, s/he must not strive to be a political force. A reporter can present pointed opinions, but it has to be done separately from news work. Otherwise the credibility of the reporter as an independent conveyor of information is undermined and the audience can easily begin to respond to everything that the journalist in question does as biased.

The most important values of a journalist are impartiality, independence of commercial and political interests and responsibility.

The journalists are to adhere to good journalistic practice. This happens
largely through self-regulation.

Even though journalism is very important to the functions of a democratic society, journalism as a profession is not held in a high regard.

Many reasons can be found for this: prejudices and uproar related to gossip magazine reporters and paparazzis, accusations of partiality and of brown nosing to the policymakers have all affected people’s attitudes towards journalists.

Additionally, people easily criticize the work of a journalist if the perspectives or the coverage do not appeal to them for personal or ideological reasons.

During recent years, this low esteem for journalists can be explained by commercialization, the focus on entertainment and the blunders brought on by the increasing workload and hurry for editorial staff.

The societal position of a reporter

...is very acutely described by a textbook of Finnish journalism “Principles of journalistic work”, which outlines the premises of press work:
  • You are a reporter, not a star.
  • You are a servant of the people, not a ruler. You are a seeker of knowledge, not its guardian. You know people, but you are not everyone’s friend.
  • You are there, but not seen – you are a shadow.
  • You are present, but you are not the object of the piece of news, nor the one something is happening to. You are not the protagonist of news article.
  • You work a profession which is mundane work. You are a professional, according to whose information the majority of us construct our worldview.

Keep Reading:

 Journalism is teamworkHow do the news make money?; The professional position of a journalist Or go back to the beginning of this section: Journalism