Last Updated 26 Jan 2021

How important a contribution does the media make to American democracy?

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The contribution of the media to democracy in the United States of America is undoubtedly essential for the proper functioning of the democratic process. Without the media the fundamental principles on which democracy is based, such as accountability and transparency would be sadly ignored as there would be little engagement with opposing schools of belief and contradictory accounts and arguments. This paper seeks to explore the role played by the media in democracy in the U.S in order to highlight the importance thereof in a democratic society. The paper concludes that although there is some measure of accountability needed to ensure responsible journalism, the importance is too great to attempt to quell the voice of the media as a public accountability mechanism.


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The role of the media in any democracy is multifaceted with as many advantages as disadvantages. Central to the concept of democracy is the idea of participation by the public in the relations of the state in order to effect change and allow the policy decisions to reflect the will of the majority (Goodhart, 2011). The media plays a role in a number of ways. At an abstract level, the media enforces inherent foundational principles of democracy such as accountability and transparency, which ensure that in a theoretical sense, the model of democracy to which the state subscribes is upheld in the truest form possible particular to the idiosyncrasies of that country. At a ground level, the media provides widespread information to the public so to as engage the general population on the issues of state and doing so whilst exposing the public to a variety of political information rather than the viewpoint of the ruling party or dominant ideology as decided by democratic election. It goes without saying that in times of political election, the media has come to play an increasing role in the decision making process for the lay man who generally will only be exposed to this information through media outlets due to issues of apathy and a general ambivalence towards politics. In the case of the United States, the media arguably plays a larger role than any other similarly sized democratic country with widespread dissemination of information through a variety of media outlets such as traditional print media, to digital media in the form of broadcasting and most recently the widespread phenomenon of social media and internet presence. This paper seeks to explore the importance of the contribution made by the media to democracy in the U.S. In doing so, it will explore the importance of the media as an accountability mechanism both providing reactive information and encouraging a proactive stance on communication by the government. The paper will further go on to explore the particular power of the media in U.S democracy and in doing so analyse the appropriateness of the media in this role. This will conclude with a discussion as to the potential detrimental effects of heavy media presence in light of media bias, inflammatory practices, and the growing trend of unreliability in the media and irresponsible journalism. Through this exploration and analysis, the importance of the contribution to democracy made by the media will be determined in order to reach a conclusion as to the suitability of this kind of public accountability for the purposes of furthering American democracy.

Foundational Principles of American Democracy

Regardless of political ideology, there are a number of foundational principles on which democracy is based and with regards to which the media plays an important role. Amongst these principles are transparency and accountability. In recent years, since the economic recession of 2007/8, these principles are becoming increasingly more important These concerns garner global public concern for the administration of government with regards to policy making and implementation which was brought to a head with this economic collapse and the subsequent unveiling of a plethora of questionable policy decisions for which there was little transparency of process and even less avenues for accountability (Stromberg & Prat, 2011). Transparency and accountability are two concepts that are not exclusive to democracy, nor politics generally. These two principles are inextricably linked in terms of democratic pursuit, as democracy is based on the ideology of having a government elected by the people for a greater representation of public opinion and therefore a government that is more representative of the current state of affairs in the country generally.

With the need for democratic accountability and transparency becoming of unprecedented importance, the former skepticism of the American people at the level of intervention by the government needs to be reformed (McKay, 2009). The role of the media is pivotal for mediating the relationship between the general public and the government in two ways. The first relates to the role of the media as a government ‘watch dog’ (Francke, 1995), which is a common denominator of many democratic countries. In these scenarios, the media disseminates information to ensure widespread coverage of political happenings, generally brought on by the absence of such adequate communication by the state itself (Ibid). The second role of the media is inherent in this as it compels the government to be more consistent with the communication with public, as this allows a certain measure of control. It is no secret that often media sources are biased, inflationary and unreliable (Knight & Chiang, 2008). Greater cooperation with a suitable standard of communication therefore will ensure that the correct information is relayed to the public and will allow the state a certain measure of control over the information which is made available. In doing so, therefore the media plays an important role in upholding democratic principles on which the American democracy is based. The role of the media in American democracy understands the fundamental truth of having freedom of speech and civil rights as base foundational principles of a political system and simply put, this truth is that accountability and transparency are unavoidable in the pursuit of a well-functioning democratic state (Welch & Nunu, 1996).

The Power of the Media

Jean Adriane Voltaire famously said that with great power comes great responsibility and in the case of mass media in the U.S, this statement could hold no greater truth (Payandeh, 2010). The forming of public opinion around that of the media in its various forms is common place in most democracies, however particularly prevalent in American society due to the commonality of following of common forms of pop culture. Therefore accessibility of the state to the public through media is at an all time high. Democracy as a concept does more than foster ideals, it advances public interest (Kono, 2006). The perception therefore that the media creates of the state will have a direct impact in the advancement of the interests of the public. The need for accountability of the media is as a result as important as the accountability that they are projecting onto the state, as reckless journalism can have a potentially devastating effect on public perception of state practices and policies (Penenberg, 2009). The basis for this power stems from the mainstream place of the media. It means that the media has the power to engage the apathetic voter and because there is little motivation for any further engagement, the opinion of the apathetic citizen will be replaced with the consistent supply of information given to this voter by these media outlets. Indeed, it has been opined that this power to engage minority groups and voters that would otherwise not engage in democratic process has the potential to change the landscape for democratic elections in the future for leaders representative of a minority, such as African-American groups and women as seen in the 2008 national elections in the U.S (Wagner, 2010). This power is arguably of greater benefit than disadvantage to the democratic process, as it encourages some kind of political engagement from otherwise apathetic voters (Mattson, 2003). This must however be carefully contrasted to the potential detriment of such engagement, particularly if these opinions are based on false account of fact. Presumably however the deciding factor in such a balancing act would be in the reform of the general attitude towards governmental practice as a generational effect. It can be argued that this engagement with the public by the media is superficial however will foster an attitude of inquisition of the general person towards affairs of the state which may only be of relevance to later generations however can be seen as a long term solution to combating apathy (Gurevitch et al, 2009). The importance of the contribution made by the media therefore, not only has a short term effect on democratic legitimacy, but has equal importance for the survival of responsible and accountable democratic process in the future.

Provision of a Variety of Political Communication

One can conceptualize a scenario where there was no media intervention in the communication of political affairs to the general public. In this scenario, the ideology of the dominant party or leader would be the only opinion forwarded as official government communication. This however is not consistent with democracy as an ideology of political functioning. Whilst arguably this scenario represents one reductio ad absurdum, it highlights the value of the media as essential for public communication in a responsible democratic process, as it provides a variety of opinions from a range of sources to the general population (Mutz & Martin, 2001). The provision of information in this way has the effect of allowing a holistic view of the political happenings of a country. Although interestingly, the evolution of new media has had somewhat of a counterintuitive effect. The evolution of media currently in the U.S sees loyalty amongst certain outlets to various political leaders and political parties. This is compounded by the fact that social media has allowed citizens to tailor the way that they receive information, so that there is no unauthorized exposure of any kind of information without the explicit approval of the person receiving that information (Ibid). The obvious effect of this evolution means that voters are able to receive information from biased sources without the inclusion of any contradictory opinion, and despite the potential for divergence of opinion from that which is being received, because the voter will not ever see the alternative opinion, there is the potential for formation of generally biased opinions towards or against certain groups, leaders or parties.

Despite the potential detriment that this bias may present, it still maintains an inherent value for accountability of the state. By providing citizens with some basis for political opinion, the media is ensuring that citizens are not only informed, but done so in a way that creates groups of differing opinion which will inherently lead to debate and accountability mechanisms through support or discontent (DESA, 2006). Moreover which, the nature of democratic process and political strategy means that opposing groups of ideology will continuously be campaigning for accountability of their opposition and in doing so will hold those groups to account through transparency and debate (Gurevitch, 2009). The evidence of such strategies in the U.S is clear as there is a large reliance on the media by the dominant parties, Republican and Democrat, as a means to rallying political discourse between the public, the government, the international community and other interested parties. The importance therefore of the contribution made by the media to democracy is exemplary, as even if a scenario where the government had adequate means of communication with the public, the media provides a holistic view of the system without prejudice or concern for public image thereof. In doing so, the media continues to uphold and enforce the fundamental tenets of democracy.


It is clear from the examination of the role played by the media that there are fundamental advantages and disadvantages in the positioning of the media as a mediator between the state and the citizens of a country. This is particularly evident in the case of the U.S due to an overwhelming reliance on the media as a means of public accountability. The importance however of the contribution made by the media to democracy as an ideology on which the state is run is inexplicably valuable. Despite the potential for media bias, reckless journalism and inflammatory practices, there can be no enforcement of principles of accountability and transparency on which democracy is based without the presence of the media in all the traditional and evolved forms. As a means of general education and engagement with the public, the media is the easiest and most effective means of gauging public opinion and rallying voter support in times of election. The antithesis of democracy is apathy and the value of the media in combating this apathy through the reach that it has to younger generations, as well as disengaged minorities and misinformed majorities positions the media as an essential contributor to the furtherance of democracy in the United States. It can therefore be concluded that despite the need for accountability mechanisms for the media to ensure responsible journalism, there is a greater need for the use of these outlets to ensure continued and potentially greater success of democratic process in the United States.


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Goodhart, M. (2011) ’Democratic Accountability in Global Politics: Norms, not Agents’ The Journal of Politics, 73(1), pp 45 – 60

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