Roles of the Media

According to the US Center for Democracy and Governance, the media serves two primary functions. Firstly, the media has an 'informing function'. It is responsible for the spread of information and enables citizens to make informed decisions. Secondly, the media performs a 'checking function' by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.

Walter Lippmann
Walter Lippmann

"For the newspaper is in all literalness the bible of democracy, the book out of which a people determines its conduct. It is the only serious book most people read. It is the only book they read every day. Now the power to determine each day what shall seem important and what shall be neglected is a power unlike any that has been exercised since the Pope lost hold on the secular mind." (Walter Lippmann ,1920)

In John Keanein The Media and Democracy (1991):"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspaper, or newspaper without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." (Thomas Jefferson 1787)
According to Thomas Jefferson's quote, it demonstrated the media or the 'Fourth Estate' is a important component to build up a state's democracy.1119_clip_image001.jpg

"The power struggle that occurs between the press and governing institutions comes into particularly sharp relief over the issue of access to documents generated by governmental decision-making - the so-called 'freedom of information' issue. Community concern about governmental secrecy has led to freedom of information legislation being passed in a number of liberal democracies. (Economou & Tanner, 2008)

"In a study published in 2003 in The Journal of law, Economics, and Organization, Adsera, Boix and Patne examine the relationship between corruption and "free circulation of daily newspapers per person". Controlling for economic development, type of legal system, and other factors, they find very strong associations: the lower the news circulation, the greater the corruption. Another analysis published in 2006, a historial account by the economists Matthew Gentzkow, Edward L. Glaeser, and Claudia Goldin,
suggests that the growth of a more information-oriented press may have been a factor in reducing government corruption in the United States between the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era." (Starr, 2009, pg29)

Checks and Balances

Checks and balances - within this context - is a term which refers to the separation of state power into a multitude of areas. Although the democratic governments do generally get to have the final word on any decision made by any aspect of a democratic society, a lot of things are generally left up to the discretion of these varying elements of society. The media is a fantastic example of a separation of state power into private hands. The media acts as a watchdog on government and informs the public, other functions of the media include;
  • Restricts Government Power

  • Preserve Individual **Liberty**

  • Inform Citizenry

  • Keep Government Transparent

The media restricts government power - in general - by helping to maintain transparency about the goings-on inside a government. Any country with a nationalised media is certain to have some sort of political bias towards the government in power (this is not to say that privatised media corporations are impartial but, rather, that they can afford to be). In this way they also keep a society informed about any pressing issues or urgent matters about that particualr society which they feel should have attention drawn to them in order to preserve any individual's right to liberty and freedom of thought. This process, however, is never going to be perfect and can in fact prove detrimental at times to a particular sector of society - large or small. An example of this can be seen within the context of the suicides of four children at a school in Geelong, Victoria. The Channel Nine current affairs program Sixty Minutes attempted - on a number of occasions - to screen a program about these suicides but failed to ignore a number of commonly-held media conventions such as the requirement to omit specific details about the the deaths. This particular example led to a societal split, with a number of groups and indviduals claiming it was an unjust, unnecessary and, in part, unauthorised report which shirked media conventions. The other part of society was of the belief that the public should be notified and made aware of the situation, asserting that such a headline would bring greater publicity to the problem of teen suicide and could in fact gain press coverage for organisatiosn which strive to help children in suicidal situations. The problem with this particular news item was that the program did not show the appropriate amount of compassion to the families nor the appropriate amount of discretion believed to be necessary by media boards. You can watch the full MediaWatch report on the 60 Minutes program here (should this be here or somewhere else on the wiki? Please feel free to change its location.)

Media(Press):Voice of the people

The press has been described as a "fourth power" because of its considerable influence over public opinion (which in turn affects the outcome of elections), as well as its indirect influence in the branches of government by, for example, its support or criticism of pending legislation or policy changes. It has rarely, however, been a formal branch of democratic government; nor have political philosophers suggested that it become one.

High concentration of media ownership has significant effects on the Australian public. The monopoly of power, which has such a considerable influence, must be recognised as an unelected power. Media conglomerates such as News Corporation (owned by the Murdoch Family) exercise political power over elected governments and have consequently been an issue in Australian democracy.

Traditionally, the press has been the "voice of the people", keeping government somewhat in check. Examples of this were the Watergate scandal, where two Washington Post reporters exposed corruption and coverup at the highest levels of government, or the Adscam (Sponsorship scandal) which was uncovered by the press in Canada. This exposure caused the resignation, firing, or prosecution of many officials.

There exist situations where the press can affect public opinion in ways that are contrary to the spirit of separation of powers. One of the most compelling of these situations is when the state controls the content and distribution of the information disseminated by the press. However, even if the press is immune to censorship and compulsion from the government, the controlling entity of a press association or media outlet must almost always edit, and may editorialize, providing opportunities to affect public opinion in ways that may contradict public interest. In all cases, the "voice of the people" (as perceived by some) is modified by the opinions of those producing the stories.

However, in the commercial society, the media function of voicing the opinion is facing chanllenge.Avoid to develope media as a commodity. Otherwise, the healthy development of media will be impossible.

Commercialization of Media

Commercialization is the behavior with the aim to make profit by producing products or providing certain service. The so-called “media commercialization” is that the media overly pursue commercial interests regardless of the social benefits. From the traditional point of view, media is seen as the conscience of the editors to meet the people’s right to know information, provide the true facts of news events and the real information, and is submitted to public opinion. The nature of the media not only has to grasp the direction of public opinion, but also ensure the program attractive and appealing; not only to win the audience, but also more necessary to win the trust, respect and follow of other media. However, in commercial society, everything can be transformed into consumption, including the suffering and the truth. In order to survive, media must produce products that can satisfy the consumers. Commercialization of the media poses a new model to the press, and it is easily for media to become the tool for some illegal acts.

The media and the democratic process

McNair (2003, 21) suggests five functions of the communication media in "ideal-type" democratic societies:
  • First, they must inform citizens of what is happening around them (montoring function of media)
  • Second, they must educate as to the meaning and significance of the "facts"
  • Third, the media must provide a platform for public political discourse, faciliating the formation of "public opinion", and feeding that opinion back to the public from whence it came. This must include the provision of space for the expression of dissent, without which the notion of democratic consensus would be meaningless.
  • The media's fourth function is to given publicity to governmental and political institutions - the "watchdog" role of journalism.
  • Finally, the media in democratic societies serve as a channel for the advocacy of political viewpoints.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation ABC.jpg

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, or "the ABC", is Australia's national public broadcaster providing television, radio, online and mobile services Australia-wide as well as overseas. The ABC aims to provide a high standard of innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services offering programs that inform, entertain, educate and contribute to a sense of national identity and promote the cultural diversity of the Australian community (ABC Charter 1983).

The ABC, an arm of the media in Australian Democracy, is described as providing a check and balance and acts as a major watchdog on Australian Politics. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 states in Part II, Section 8, "1) It is the duty of the board: (c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of objective journalism" (ABC Act 1983). Despite this, the ABC has often been accused of having a bias to left-wing politics.

One recent example of this was during and after the announcement that former ABC journalist Maxine McKew would run for public office with the Australian Labor Party. Liberal Members of Parliament and right-wing commentators jumped on this revelation while one Liberal Senator jokingly wondered if there might be a branch of the Australian Labor Party at the ABC's Sydney headquarters (Mares, 2007).

Crikey journalist Gerard Henderson comments on an article by Robert Manne in The Monthly's December 2007 issue about the ABC during the time of the Howard government. Manne highlighted that, "the Howard years saw the rise and rise of an aggressive right-wing commentariat [who] for the past 11 and three quarter years… maintained a consistent rhetorical attack on the supposed left-wing bias of the ABC…”. Henderson reveals that Manne had overlooked the fact that prior to the Howard Liberal Government, the Labor Governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were highly critical of the ABC also (Henderson, 2007).
Part of the ABC Charter Section 6 a) i. "to provide broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community". The ABC is the key broadcasting sector through which Australians are meant to gain a sense of cultural identity and history, and through which a global community may come to understand our national identity. It is debatable as to whether the ABC has so far communicated a balanced image of Australian identity, particularly if questions concerning its political support can occur. In many ways I think the ABC has not strictly confered to one political form as much as it represents a relaxed Aussie attitude concentrating on educational programs that many children of todays generation grew up watching, and the development of the comic film series - mockumentary. Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes are two recent examples.

Role Of Media In Australia

Helen Ester(2007) argues that the Coaltion government under Howard created a climate of fear amongst bureaucrats in regard to leaking government imformation to the media .Thus allowing the government to control the information flow from their departments to the media and then to the public ( Ester 2007, p 103). Interestingly the notion of "the watchdog' as characteristic of The Fourth Estate comes into play with the leaking of information in that the government is kept in check because of the fear of the truth of leaked information. Laurie Oakes, perhaps Australia's most well-respected politival commentator/journalist, , put this notion rather aptly;
"It is the threat of leaks that kepps politicians honest...they are much more reluctant to lie or act improperly if they know they could be found out" (Oakes cited in Ester, 2007, p 106)

The 'Fourth Estate'

The role of the media is strongly dependent on the civic society in question. Liberal democracies are at the core representative, and hence depend on a forum of ideas and opinions to function in a manner fitting with their ideology. It is therefore natural to assume that in furtherance of their goals, restrictions on expression in liberal democracies should be more relaxed than that of say, an authoritarian state. Economou and Tanner describe the media as being able to adopt a number of models, such as the ‘Fourth Estate’ or ‘Propaganda model’. It is logical to assume that the Fourth Estate is the model that suits liberal democracies, where the media adopts the role of an institution that stands alongside the other major institutions of society. Its purpose is to provide balance against the other estates, to act as a “watchdog on government, a bulwark against the tyranny of ‘the state’ and as the protector of the liberty of the citizenry”. In this role, it is reasonable to conclude that freedom of expression should be allowed to a level that encourages discourse, for instance in a debate of government policies. Should an individual propagate hate speech, it might be reasonable to assume that the individual might not possess the said faculties required by Mill’s liberty. In contrast, the Propaganda Model, one where the media is becomes an “official outlet for the state” and hence serving the interests of the state, any subversive expression is likely to be a candidate for censorship.

The 'Fourth Estate' is vital to liberal democracy - The Media acts as an non-governmental organisation in a constitution that helps the public citizens to understand the existing problems of the state and at the same time expressing their opinions back to the state, hence, the media can balance the power of the state and avoid autocracy. A shining example of the media as the governments 'watchdog' is what became known as 'The Watergate Scandal' of 1972'. "An instance of investigative journalism which holds a celebrated postion in the folklore of liberal democratic journalism" (Economou & Tanner, p14). In the film Frost/Nixon which re-tells the story of Richard Nixon's post-resignation interviews with British journalist David Frost the phrase, "The misuse of power is the essence of tyranny", echos the entire ethos behind the notion of the 'Fourth Estate'. That power must be kept in check and transparent ( the task of which has been assigned to the media) in order to avoid tyrannical rule.

The Fourth Estate approach is viable only if the people populating the staff of a media organisation adhere to an ethical framework. Economou and Tanner list the main professional values and ethics that journalists, their editors and owners of the press should have in order for the press to avoid media bias through external or internal influence that would dictate the flow of debate of current political issues of the state (2008, p. 12-15). Only when all three parties are objective, fair, incorrupt and supportive of each other could information be disseminated truthfully and society be fully informed of the true matters of the state. As the Fourth Estate approach is said to be a set of norms and not a rule, the three parties have the freedom of choice to adhere to it or not. However, it is implied obviously in Economou and Tanner which choice is the 'right' choice.

As is seen in the political social contract theory and liberal philosophy of Locke in his Two Treatise on Government it is essential to a liberal democracy that individual liberty is achieved through the restriction of State Power. J.S. Mills too sought the limitation of State Power in order to allow for the amelioration of individual liberties and as suich allow for a growth in rationality, reason and diversity of opinion. Mills said; "We can never be sure that the opinions we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still." With these eighteenth and nineteenth century dreams achieved in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries it is vital that within the Fourth Estate there is a certain level of integrity maintained. In a capitalist world that is naturally dominated by the market, it is vital that "journalists should not allow commercial interests to influence their work", but rather should maintain a high level of journalistic integrity, in protection of the rights that were so labouriously achieved by our fore-fathers.

Media Bias

The Australian media landscape is notably dominated by several rather large corporations, such as News Corporation, Publishing & Broadcasting Ltd and John Fairfax Holdings. Since media has a vital link between government, and the citizenry, the press have a strategic command of not only the flow of information, but also of the nature and debates that make up the political life of the liberal democracy. This forms the basis of the notion that the press act as important 'gatekeepers' of the debate an have more than a little influence over 'agenda setting' (Economou & Tanner, 2008). The recognition of this reality can also be seen as a form of political corruption where owners or the controllers of the press might seek to utilise this linkage role in pursuit of self interest, whether it be political or not.

The 'fourth estate' notion assumes that the political media will be to transparent, fair and objective when reporting on affairs of the state. However, because of the sheer size of Australia, media ownership in Australia is now highly concentrated and means that the control of these organisations rests in the hands of only a few. With this comes another complication. There is concern with interests spreading beyond the media, large business or corporations have very influential power over government, thus able to command the attention of cabinets and in particular prime ministers. Because of of this influential power that these corporations may posses, they are put in a position to either strengthen or damage a party's electoral process. Putting them in a very powerful position.

Given this notion of power interplay, corporate owners are now able to (to an extent) control news agenda. For example if one of the large corporations want some sort of policy to be passed on from government in order to favour their organisation, they may use the power they have over government like a bargaining tool. In this case, good or maybe preferred coverage for a certain party in exchange for some legislation or new law that will ultimately favour the corporation owners. Hence, "media policy is not simply implemented by government but is a process whereby corporations" and other interested groups " engage in public debate and lobbying in order to bring about change" (Graig, 2004) (however because of the close ties between government and the corporations, there may not even be any 'public debate' or 'lobbying' so to speak). This sheds light in the many ways that large corporations can bargain with government, and they can do this in a covert manner through exchanges that will be mutually beneficial, and this will go unnoticed by society because it is just simply too hard to prove the existence of such behavior.

Works Cited:

ABC Act, 2008, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 - Sect 6: Charter of the Corporation, [web]
ABC Act, 2008, Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 - Sect 8: Duties of the Board, [pdf] available
Abjorensen, N. (2007) "Democratic Audit of Australia"
Economou, N & Tanner, S. (2008). "Media, Power and Politics in Australia", Pearson, p1-26
Economou, N & Tanner, S. (2008). "Media, power and Politics in Australia", Pearson, p.18
Ester H "The Media", in Silencing Dissent, Clive Hamilton & Sarah Madison, 2007,Allen and Unwin (eds)
Graig, G. 2004, "The media, politics and public life", Allen & Unwin, Crows nest.
Henderson, G., 2007, And now, a letter from Gerard Henderson... - Crikey, [web]
Mares, P., 2007, The National Interest - 1July2007 - ALP/ABC: spot the difference? [transcript]
McNair, B (2003) "Politics, Democracy and the Media'. Chapter 2 in his An Introduction to Political Communication. 3rd edn, Pg 16-28; 227-8.
Starr, P (2009), "Goodbye to the Age of Newspaper (Hello to a new Era of Corruption)" The New Republic, March 4, 2009
"John Keane, The Media and Democracy", Wiley-Blackwell (1991)
External Links:
corporate influence in the media