Role of media in democracy



Media constitute the fourth pillar of democracy. The role of the media is vital in generating a democratic culture that extends beyond the political system and becomes engrained in the public consciousness over time. Media is supplying the political information that voters base their decisions on. They identify problems in our society and serve as a medium for deliberation. They also serve as watchdogs that we rely on for uncovering errors and wrongdoings by those who have power. Media is vital in generating a democratic culture that extends beyond the political system and becomes engrained in the public consciousness over time. The role of media in a democracy is as crucial as that of the politicians and should never be underestimated.

Freedom of expression is critical to democracy

This rationale is based on the notion that democracy – which recognises that people have the right to elect a government of their choosing – cannot exist in any meaningful way without the right to freedom of expression. There are many aspects to this rationale, but the fundamental concept is that in order for democracy to be effective, the citizenry that votes in elections and engages in public processes with government must be informed and must have the right to participate freely in public discourse. If there is no freedom of expression – if people are not free to share information and express a range of ideas, opinions and political views; and, the corollary to that, if people are not free to receive information in the form of a range of ideas, opinions and political views – they will not be sufficiently well informed to make appropriate and meaningful political choices, whether at the ballot box or in their interactions with government more generally.

Media and society:

The media can play a positive role in democracy only if there is an enabling environment that allows them to do so. They need the requisite skills for the kind of indepth reporting that a new democracy requires. There should also be mechanisms to ensure they are held accountable to the public and that ethical and professional standards are upheld. Media independence is guaranteed if media organizations are financially viable, free from intervention of media owners and the state, and operate in a competitive environment. The media should also be accessible to as wide a segment of society as possible. Efforts to help the media should be directed toward: the protection of press rights, enhancing media accountability, building media capacity and democratising media access.

Building independent media in developing countries requires more than freedom of speech, skilled journalists, or strong business management skills. Enabling independent media to perform the crucial roles of being a watchdog over government and educating people about the issues that affect their lives also requires supporting organizations such as trade unions and professional associations for journalists, and a public educated about these roles and responsibilities of media and their function in a democratic and open society. If a democracy is to run smoothly in any country, it is a must that the media in all fairness should be given full autonomy and a free hand it deserves in airing its views among the people and no unnecessary restrictions should be imposed on it.

In words of Benito Mussolini –

“Democracy is a kingless regime infested by many kings who are sometimes more exclusive, tyrannical and destructive than one, if he be a tyrant”. It is the fear of being exposed by the media before the public that most of the politicians keep themselves under control to some extent

On the other side, media also on its part should play a very responsible, active and neutral role in discharging its duties without being influenced by any particular political party or few individuals and should treat everyone on an equal footing. If media does not discharge its responsibility independently in any democratic country, the politicians are bound to behave like dictations or even worse than them. Media carries with it a huge responsibility in a democratic setup which it has to fulfil very carefully without any bias toward anyone by bringing out the real facts before the public.


Role of Media

Media has a very big role to play in a democracy and its stature is in no way less than that of politicians. Hence it is rightly called the fourth Pillar of democracy i.e. Fourth Estate. It is through media that people become aware of so many aspects of life of which they are normally ignorant. Democracy is meaningless without a free, neutral and active media. Media is often referred to as the fourth branch of government because of the power they wield and the oversight function they exercise. The media’s key role in democratic governance has been recognized since the late 17th century, and remains a fundamental principle of modern-day democratic theory and practice.

The role of the press as ‘watchdog’ is a traditional characterisation of the role of the news media in particular. This watchdog role can take many forms depending on the nature of the medium concerned, as well as on the state of democracy and development in a particular country. Essentially, this role is to provide information – to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the public in monitoring what is happening in public life by reporting on daily events as they unfold.

Amartya Sen sees the media as a watchdog not just against corruption but also against disaster. He said.

“There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy .A free press and the practice of democracy contribute greatly to bringing out information that can have an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention… a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famine could have.”

The role of media as ‘detective’ is a critical adjunct to the role of the press as public watchdog; however, it is dealt with separately here to emphasise the difference between reporting on public affairs, and journalistic investigations into wrongdoing in the administration of public affairs. When journalists are well trained and have trusted sources of information, the press is able to investigate wrongdoing by public officials. This includes perpetrating fraud or engaging in corruption in order to divert and personally benefit from public funds or other public resources. This ‘press as defective’ role is evidenced when the press is able to engage in fairly long-term, detailed, in-depth investigative journalism – the kind that is able to report to the public on large-scale systematic wrongdoing by public (or indeed private) officials, which may include nepotism, corruption, fraud or other kinds of criminality. These exposés often rely on more than one journalist and require the backup of the media publication or outlet (be it broadcasting or print) as a whole to provide the necessary resources for the investigative exercise. In many countries, the ability and willingness of the press to engage in investigative journalism is key to encouraging the police and prosecuting authorities to act against corrupt public figures, even if this only occurs as a result of the intolerable pressure that the resulting publicity puts on the police and prosecuting authorities.

There is no doubt that media has done a commendable job from time to time in making people aware about the harsh realities of life, in exposing corruption prevalent in our society, in increasing the awareness level among the people and a lot more but I feel that still a lot remains to be done. Media is becoming increasingly popular among people from all walks of life and it certainly has the potential of influencing the thoughts of its readers/viewers to a large extent. Media should, no doubt, be neutral in airing views but it should also strongly desist from airing such views which can adversely affect the communal harmony and give rise to deep suspicion, tension and senseless violence which leads to killing innocent people. The media should make the people aware of the consequences of the various actions of the governments.

Linked to its general educational role, but more controversially, the press can also play the role of democracy and good governance advocate. This role is controversial because it envisages the press as both advocate and impartial reporter. In this role, the press comments on issues of the day and advocates improved democratic practices and good governance. In this advocacy role, the press sees itself firmly on the side of the ordinary citizen, whose life can be improved or worsened depending on how public authority is exercised. This advocacy role is also closely linked to the watchdog role of the press; however, it goes further. The press as advocate will report not only on what is happening but on what should be happening. The press in many developing countries is almost forced to playing this role because improving basic human living conditions cannot happen without democratic practices and good governance.

World Bank, James Wolfensohn, said in a 2002 report:

A key ingredient of an effective development strategy is knowledge transmission and enhanced transparency. To reduce poverty, we must liberate access to information and improve the quality of information. People with more information are empowered to make better choices. For these reasons I have long argued that a free press is not a luxury. It is at the core of equitable development. The media can expose corruption. They can keep a check on public policy by throwing a spotlight on government action. They let people voice diverse opinions on governance and reform and help build public consensus to bring about change


Media act as a catalyst for democracy and development, helping to make public participation meaningful .If media is honest and committed in its job, democracy is bound to function more efficiently and the loopholes present in any democratic system can certainly be plugged to the fullest satisfaction of the people. On the contrary, if media is biased, corrupt and favours only a particular party or few individuals, it can prove to be very dangerous for the smooth functioning of democracy. No one can become perfect and one can only strive to become so. The same holds true for our media also. Certainly there is still a lot of scope for improvement by which the media can rise upon the aspirations of the people for which it is primarily meant.


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