The Important Duty of Journalists
Erika Hornmark and Katherine Ashley Chen
November 6, 2022
Mass media has served as a consistent check on government, serving as the people’s forum for the political expression protected under the First Amendment. As mass media becomes progressively more accessible, it has sprouted in various directions, including copious political misinformation. Mass media should be held responsible for its impacts on republican democracy, since they have an essential role of serving as a check on the government and inciting citizens' political participation.
The media serves as a checking power against the federal government due to the freedom of speech and press allotted to citizens in the Constitution's First Amendment. This leaves mass media largely uncensored, with few restrictions to balance the protection of press liberties and the enforcement of public safety, which can have tremendous consequences, some of which are illustrated in the court cases New York Times v. USA.
In the leadup to the court case New York Times v. USA (set during the Vietnam War), President Nixon commissioned a classified report on the state of the Vietnam Conflict. The report showcased that the president deliberately misled the public on American success in Vietnam, and it was leaked to the New York Times. The NYT planned to publish the report in the Pentagon Pape—until they were served with a prior restraint order by the Nixon administration.
The Times took the administration to court, where it was decided in a six-three decision that Nixon had violated the first amendment by issuing the order, as there was no "heavy presumption against" the prior restraint order of NYT. In other words, no military forces would be put under real threat from the release of the documents, and by issuing a prior restraint, the government curtailed the citizens’ inherent right to free speech.
The ruling in NYT v. USA allowed the NYT to publish the Pentagon Papers. Its exposition of the government’s misinformation resulted in public outrage and compounded distrust in the government, eventually culminating in Nixon's resignation from office. Without the involvement of mass media bringing to light the faults of Nixon's presidency, he likely would have stayed in office and continued directing misinformation towards the people. The case showcased the immense consequences that publications have in keeping citizens informed and influencing public opinion.
In a similar vein, the media can prompt citizens' political participation by increasing or decreasing citizen trust in the existing government, as well as perpetuating bias in news coverage that may motivate political involvement. With the rise of investigative journalism uncovering flaws in representatives and government, citizens have increasingly lost faith in the system and become incentivized to politically participate against such representatives. Similarly, biases seen in political commentary, partisan news sites, and citizen journalists can incorrectly incentivize individuals as they may not accurately represent the entire issue. Many times, the media perpetuates existing bias that continues to create negative perceptions of policies and representatives. Politically charged coverage of issues can motivate individuals to contact local representatives, stage protests, and campaign on behalf of political candidates by going door-to-door.
With the pervasiveness of the internet, the media's impact on citizen trust and government functionality has increased tenfold. Journalists possess a heavy responsibility in both maintaining morale (something essential for governments to continue to work) and exposing wrongful governance. Although misinformation has reduced trust in both government and journalists, it is imperative that journalists continue in their attempts to hold the government accountable.