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Mass Media and the Internet in the United States

Role of the Media in a Democracy

The media plays a vital role in American democracy by acting as a source of reliable information about the actions and plans of government officials. While the press is independent of government control, reporting can be influenced by powerful corporations, though competition provides a check on concentrated media power.

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a basic guarantee of the freedom of the press: "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom … of the press." The framers of the Constitution had lived through the Revolutionary period, during which the press was extremely important. At the time, information was dispersed through newspapers, pamphlets, articles, and broadsides. The press kept citizens connected and allowed them an avenue to criticize (or praise) the government and individuals working in the government. If citizens had not been able to do this, the Revolution may well never have happened. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and later the third president (1801–09) felt strongly that a free press was a fundamental necessity to democratic government. Referring to freedom of the press, he said, "The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right."

In nondemocratic countries the government controls part of all of the media. This arrangement makes it impossible for writers or broadcasters to objectively examine and report on government actions. In the United States, the media is in private hands, enabling it to serve as a check on the government. With the 1st Amendment, media companies and workers are protected from government restrictions on or censorship of the stories they cover or the facts or analysis they present to readers or viewers. As a result, the media has great influence on the political system.

While the government does not control the media in the United States, it can influence media coverage through the information it provides, briefings that government officials give to journalists, treatment of media members, and occasional requests to hold stories from publication. Still, that influence is limited. In the United States the corporations that own media outlets control media content and delivery. The viewpoints of that corporation's leadership may then be reflected in the news from that outlet. In some cases, a media outlet may lean to a more conservative or liberal point of view. In addition, large media companies with outlets in multiple media markets—such as the Sinclair Broadcast Group—can have undue weight if they present a unified message. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, media power became increasingly concentrated in fewer hands. That development, combined with the closing or shrinking of several daily newspapers across the country, increased the power of the media giants that remained.

While media companies can wield enormous influence, they also face outside pressures. Competition among myriad media outlets provides a check on any one media entity from becoming too influential, though that competition has been reduced in the United States since the late 20th century. Another factor is financial—most media outlets rely on advertising fees to survive. Advertisers may exert influence over a media outlet through their decisions to place or pull ads or commercials. If an important advertiser exerts enough pressure, a media outlet may refrain from running a story that might offend one of their prominent advertisers, though media companies typically assert that their news departments are independent of such concerns.

With freedom of the press comes responsibility. The media has a responsibility in a democracy to report accurately and fairly. First, members of the press have a duty to report factual information, which means using reliable sources. Second, they have a responsibility to maintain a clear line between reporting facts and opinions. Responsible modern media outlets work to present objective reporting even if they have highly opinionated editorial positions. Third, the press has a responsibility to include all parts of a story and not dismiss any details to protect any person or group, including their own organization.

In addition, the 1st Amendment does not protect all types of speech. Among these types of speech is defamation, which is intentionally false statements about a person, whether spoken or written, made with the knowledge that they will harm the reputation of the subject of those statements. Defamatory statements made in writing are called libel; defamatory statements made orally are called slander. Two historic court cases have helped define what kinds of statements count as defamation. In colonial times a German immigrant named John Peter Zenger was charged with libel in New York for printing harsh criticisms of the colony's governor, William Cosby, in his periodical, the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger's lawyer won the case by convincing the jury to acquit Zenger on the grounds that a statement could not be judged as libel, even if it harmed the reputation of the subject of the statement, if the statement were true. Another case, New York Times Company v. Sullivan (1964), further refined the legal definition of libel. L.B. Sullivan, a city commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, charged that an advertisement printed in the New York Times defamed him because it questioned his motives in arresting Martin Luther King Jr., a leader of the civil rights movement. The court ruled that the ad was protected speech under the 1st Amendment. In this unanimous decision, 1st Amendment protection was extended to all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials unless statements are made maliciously or recklessly.

The press enjoys another protection. Most states have a shield law, a provision that protects journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources. These laws become important when a journalist bases a story on information from a whistleblower, a person who reveals wrongdoing in government or any private organization. Because this information can be embarrassing or lead to a scandal, publication can result in legal action against the reporter. The shield law can protect that reporter from revealing the source, thus protecting the whistleblower. Some states with these laws do not provide complete protection; for example, some states narrowly define journalist to refer to a full-time employee of a newspaper or broadcast news organization. The federal government does not have a shield law.