Journalism and Democracy: It’s Mutual

February 12, 2010

Perhaps journalism passed a valentine to democracy one year: “Psst, I like you, too.” That democracy digs journalism, the whole school knows that. That it’s mutual, not everyone guesses.

That’s right. Democracy needs journalism. And journalism needs democracy. Should have known. But, even growing up reading the newspaper, studying journalism in high school and college, working in the field for five years, and now returning to school to study journalism under the umbrella of interactive media, I didn’t. I didn’t, at least, give it much thought.

Democracy needs journalism because a representative government requires an informed electorate. Less obvious is why journalism needs democracy. Liberal media scholar Robert W. McChesney explains in “The Political Economy of Media.”

“Unless there is a citizenry that depends upon journalism, that takes it seriously, that is politically engaged,” McChesney writes, “journalism can lose its bearings and have far less incentive to do the hard work that generates the best possible work.”

The synergy between democracy and journalism, then, is at once troubling and reassuring given the transitional periods the two institutions currently find themselves in — in the United States, at least. It suggests deficiencies in either could bring the other down. But it also suggests that improvements in either could lift the other up.

It’s been a bit yo-yoey as of late. Two years ago things started to get real ugly for newspapers. At the same time, those papers were writing about a surge in political participation and the election of a president promising a new kind of politics. Now, the hard realities of governing have produced the same old partisan bickering. At the same time, new media upstarts that came of age during the presidential campaign are solidifying their voice.

Where things settle depends heavily on the actions of my generation. Idealistic and technologically savvy, the Millennials provide reason for optimism. They are civically engaged, as campaign ’08 showed, but not just in politics, but in community service as well.

On the journalism side, Millennials are well-suited to run the kind of values-driven news organizations The Reconstruction of American Journalism co-author Michael Schudson suggests will carry the industry forward.

In a speech Thursday, Schudson alluded to the journalism-needs-democracy argument, saying that journalism’s so-called golden age was a byproduct of Civil Rights, counterculture and post-Watergate activism. He offered that that era might have been a high watermark, but also that in today’s maturing information economy journalism is capable of many great things.

Sites like TalkingPointsMemo, ProPublica and VoiceofSanDiego, Schudson said, according to prepared remarks, “are springing up, and growing, and providing effective journalism, including original reporting, and so providing effective models for the future.”

One Response to “Journalism and Democracy: It’s Mutual”

  1. Steve, I never really thought of this point either. What I like about the message you weave in here, in addition of mentioning McChesney’s views, is that journalism has hope.

    Sometimes, I think the world of journalism is too busy looking for solutions rather than looking for good journalism. I know there needs to be a balance, but dare I say that balance demands more good journalism than solutions.

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