Journalism is Public Service


Violet Wang, Reporter

 From Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to FDR’s fireside chats to the 1960 Nixon vs. Kennedy debate, media has continually grown to revolutionize the venues by which the public can receive information. However, the increasing availability of media has lent unprecedented power for news networks to shape public opinion. Today, news media disseminate a tremendous amount of content, but some of the material can be trivial, unreliable, and polarizing. While the press is a pillar to democracy, so is social responsibility and public service. A true democracy is transparent, and the role of the news media is to safeguard this transparency and inform the public about its affairs in an unbiased, factual way. 

 The freedom of the press has been fundamental to the values that make the United States a country committed to liberty and justice for all. After the thirteen colonies won their freedom against unfair British authority, the Founding Fathers decided that there should indeed be government in America, but only if it were accountable to the people. In turn, the people could only hold the government accountable if they knew what it was doing and could intervene as necessary – by using their ballot, for example. Accordingly, the role of a public “watchdog” was assumed by a citizen run press, and as a consequence, the government in the United States has been kept out of news media production. This has been reaffirmed in cases such as the Supreme Court Decision in New York Times Co vs. United States to allow the press release of the Pentagon Papers. 

However, there is nothing in the American constitution that says the press must be unbiased and responsible. Even so, people overwhelmingly agree that the news media should be unbiased in their coverage of political issues. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 78% of Americans believe it is never acceptable for a news organization to favor one political party over others when reporting the news. So if our government is as Abraham Lincoln declared in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, to “be of the people, by the people, for the people”, then the news should constitute the objective facts. 

 The purpose of news media is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. It is to work to keep the leaders of the country responsible and accountable for their actions, to be a form of checks and balances between the people and those that represent them. In a democracy, newsmakers are serving in a type of public service because citizens rely upon them to voice accurate and unbiased news, just as they rely on elected representatives to voice their grievances. It is their duty to allow the public to form their own opinions, not be subconsciously shaped by internal bias in the newsrooms. There should be a wall separating the newsroom from the editorial department because opinions are not facts and presenting them as so is in an injustice to a functioning democracy. While a country’s democracy may belong directly or indirectly to its citizens, the democratic process can only be truly meaningful if these citizens are well informed: the job of news media is to inform them. 

As our nation becomes increasingly polarized, it is important to recognize that American journalism has never experienced a “golden age” where facts always prevailed and responsible reporting was absolute. Today, news organizations create headlines that will drive the most clicks and biggest dollar, while social media allows for fake or misleading news to spread around masquerading as fact. Some organizations such as Fox or CNN already have reputations of being biased and a recent Gallup poll indicated that over half of Americans do not fully trust the media. But, trust can be built. Increasingly popular organizations like PolitiFact and Factcheck are dedicated to creating content that isn’t just following the new, shiny story of the day. These news media organizations are working to spread the facts – and people are listening. As long as people want to be actively involved in their democracy, the truth will come out on top. 

Throughout history, press has always played a fundamental role in the American democracy for the people to be informed and involved. News media is what broke Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, and more recently scandals such as Theranos. This reporting of actual, objective news is what has allowed our democracy to function by the people – when the people know the facts. News makers must find themselves with objectivity and impartiality in the pursuit of this truth. The sentiment and drive to serve the public with integrity, not monetary interests and personal incentives, is what ensures a democracy can thrive.