In the Fourth Estate We Trust?
His point, which is open to interpretation, emphasizes the important function of newspapers, perhaps even more important than government. There is little doubt that rigorous and independent journalism is a cornerstone of a thriving democratic society. But public trust in news—recently on the decline in the United States—depends on the quality of that journalism and the rigor of good reporting. There is evidence to suggest that the very features that make news so indispensable are at risk.
There is little doubt that rigorous and independent journalism is a cornerstone of a thriving democratic society. But public trust in news—recently on the decline in the United States—depends on the quality of that journalism and the rigor of good reporting.
As traditional legacy journalism struggles to survive, the field and its legitimacy are under tremendous pressures. While journalists are not licensed professionals, the Fourth Estate’s integral role in a democracy depends on their upholding of certain standards and ethics. For example, the Society of Professional Journalists provides four ethical standards: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. Another industry-related entity, the Poynter Institute Code of Ethics outlines five values that drive their work: accuracy, independence, collaboration, fairness, and transparency. Broader forces and trends are eroding these long-practiced attributes.
First, while digital access may have its value, the resulting proliferation of fake news contributes to distrust. One cannot discount the power of the so-termed echo chamber—where people seek news that reinforces their own views—and the growth of disinformation. Social media feeds on bias and it is harmful. Political actors increasingly take advantage of the unchecked digital space for their personal gains and agendas. In April 2022, former President Barack Obama gave a speech at Stanford where he critiqued the role of social media in society, calling out companies and the role that social media plays in sowing distrust and misinformation. Fake news exists in part because there is no check on accuracy and truth, and citizens lack the capacity to sort through the barrage of information on their own.
Second, the increasingly profit-driven nature of journalism, perpetuated by ad buys and outlet consolidation under corporate ownership also skews the breadth, depth, and quality of news and local journalism. Hedge fund group Alden Global Capital acquired the Chicago Tribune last year and is currently one of the largest newsgroup operators in the country. These types of takeovers tend to hollow out local newsrooms through personnel and other cost cuts, reducing the quality until the entity no longer produces coverage subscribers are willing to pay for and the paper eventually closes. Communities increasingly find themselves without local papers and rely even more heavily on chaotic digital spaces for information.
In addition to the challenges news and journalism face, actual news media seems to be neglecting adherence to the very principles and practices that earned it such an esteemed role in democratic societies. Certainly, they were recently under attack like no other time in recent history. An annual press freedom report released on May 3 found that the United States ranks 42 out of 180, down from 24 in 2021. Whether it is fear of losing access to halls of power, or an attempt to appease readers and funders, the US media has collectively failed to play a role in challenging blatant disinformation from our leaders. In 2017, US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said, “We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve—I am very serious now—if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and often adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.” It is not partisan to be pro-democracy.
A critical task for leaders in a democracy can be to validate the role of the press and engage with journalists and this should happen at all levels.
Crushing dissent, criticism, and accountability mechanisms are essential parts of dictatorships. National governments, particularly those with an authoritarian bent, undermine and stifle efforts for transparency and accountability, ranging from nonexistent independent news sources in North Korea and Iran to highly regulated state news in countries such as China, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Even in Europe, attacks on the press are not infrequent, particularly in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. Younger Eastern European democracies have a weaker free press environment, despite the previous attempts by Western democracies to invest in infrastructure. Russian state news propaganda remains a strong presence in these countries’ news environments. There is less space—and democratic tradition—in these places for a free press that challenges officials and demands accountability and transparency. It seems to be an increasingly slippery slope.
A critical task for leaders in a democracy can be to validate the role of the press and engage with journalists and this should happen at all levels. Local leaders and authorities should have a personal stake in supporting and upholding rigorous local and independent media as a function of a healthy democracy even if—or especially if—it challenges their decisions and behavior. However, that is just a first step; it is also essential to invest in local journalism infrastructure and lead efforts to identify and create a robust, thriving journalistic ecosystem.
Cities Fortifying Democracy
The Cities Fortifying Democracy project is a first-of-its-kind cohort of American and European cities working together in teams to collaborate on what cities do and can do to strengthen the foundation of democracy from the ground up.
The Cities Fortifying Democracy (CFD) initiative at GMF Cities focuses on how cities can support and invest in local practices that help preserve and fortify our democracy—at all levels of society. This piece introduces a series on the value and importance of local journalism for democracy.