Press is the fourth pillar of democracy, as the famous saying goes. Voice of Journalists, a platform for independent journalists, explains, “This fourth pillar of democracy ensures that all people living in far off areas of a country are aware of what’s happening in the rest of their country. Media ensures transparency in the working of the three traditional branches of government.”
In a world abuzz with new information and varying private interests, it is human to forget that media exists primarily not to entertain or earn someone money, but to inform and educate. The press keeps public entities in check, informing the public of their actions and holding everyone to account. We all know how strictly rules are followed when “nobody would find out” and it is the media that counteracts with transparency. Voice of Journalists puts it simply – “if any of [the four] pillars is not working properly then somewhere democracy is still not fully functional.”
From the dawn of journalism, there have been persistent efforts to make sure the agenda behind writing a story is made clear to the reader. If the writer is trying to sell a product or an idea, that should be said upfront – commercial breaks are surrounded by recognizable sound or visual cues on broadcast media and ad blocks are graphically different from the rest of the content in print media. Sounds simple enough, right?
As the role of the reporter changes and types of media diversify, such a distinction becomes harder and harder to make. For instance, a UK regulator recently demanded Instagram celebrities to clearly label in each photo every individual product they are sponsoring, citing concerns followers might not see the advertising gig for what it is – no different from a billboard. The risk of manipulating consumer behavior is rather serious on its own, but the true danger lies in intentionally forming wrong opinions.
“Fake news” was the Collins Word of the Year 2017 and nowadays there are numerous governments taking action against hostile misinformation online. Misinformation doesn’t just confuse people, it distract from urgent issues, it strips science and technological progress of credibility, creates a sense that bigger forces are working against you and polarizes people. For example, following divisive political events in the US, the UK and France, violence has spiked, as more people find themselves mistrusting and in belief they are being cheated in some way.
The erosion of the values of the independent press is so detrimental to our way of life that the “Doomsday Clock”, which symbolizes the threat of global annihilation, remains at two minutes to midnight thanks to the rise of fake news and information warfare, its keepers have said. Nobody knows everything about everything and without a trusted source of information, how can anyone form a concrete opinion –on unfamiliar topics?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US ambassador, senator and presidential adviser, famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The media’s fundamental duty is to report on the facts and put opinions squarely aside, to dust the agenda off the media buzz and strip to hard data, allowing the reader or viewer to form their own opinion. That is not something people just naturally do, and to journalists too it comes with practice and conscious effort.
European Youth Press reasons, “it is crucial to train young journalists to spot biases in the media landscape as well as in themselves […] It is essential that personal stereotypes – whatever they may be related to – not affect professional activities of journalists.” Nowadays, anyone can pick up a camera or write an article and publish a story online. As more and more people take on a journalist’s role, it is pivotal to our democracy that these people have at least a basic understanding of the responsibility that comes with this action.
“Media literacy is important in sustaining democracy by knowing which information sources to trust and which media are trustworthy. It is important to recognize and see through propaganda and sometimes “read between the lines”, stipulates European Youth Press. In sustaining democracy, we have a key role to educate a generation that upholds, instead of diluting, its fourth pillar.