An independent media is a vital feature of any liberal democracy. If the government was able to control all the information regarding its own actions then it could most certainly escape all accountability and even have an unacceptable level of influence over its citizen's actions. This is why the importance of a free press cannot be under-estimated. In a liberal democracy, the aim of a free press is to continually scrutinize the government and provide people with accurate and impartial information so that they can act on it accordingly.
Thus, the media acts as an effective check on government power and influence over its citizens. In the last few decades, there has been an unprecedented growth in mass media accompanied by the falling costs of radio, TV, satellite and Internet services. This phenomenon has helped bring political information to a much wider audience. On the other hand, the boom in media services has also allowed various organizations from all over the political spectrum to quickly and effectively reach their target audiences.
A common charge against the media is that it increasingly seems to lack the principles of objective and impartial reporting. Instead, many major organizations seem to be taking one side of the political spectrum and at best provide relatively biased coverage or at worse act like virtual propaganda machines for a particular political party. Certainly, some issues are subjective, hence there can be no universal line of thought, and requiring all news organizations to passively report only what they see and not include an analytical perspective, would to a certain degree, defeat the purpose of having a free press.
While some of the general problems regarding the media and liberal democracies today can be easily identified, it is much harder to come up with an effective remedy. It is very difficult to completely remove political influence and enforce a perfectly neutral position. Indeed, this would be counterproductive. The media today does not just report the news but also represents the views of certain segments of society. As such, many news organizations cater to liberal or conservative lines when it comes to political information.
In theory, this could provide healthy debate because at any given point of time some news organizations will be supporting or opposing government policies. However, sometimes there is a thin line between healthy debate and active intervention and it is common for media organizations to often cross this line. In the process, a negative consequence would be the degradation of accurate political information. Therefore, some issues that can be objectively reported are often distorted to a point that it causes more confusion than clarity to the general audience.
A major concern in many liberal democracies is the emergence of media empires, where a few individuals have managed to concentrate vast amounts of media assets and use them to actively influence political opinion. Thus, these individuals, from whichever point of the political spectrum, can deliver a powerful political message on behalf or against a political establishment through their respective media empires. This is especially damaging if parts of the general public are more exposed to one particular media empire either due to its high popularity or the lack of alternative media sources.
Furthermore, these individuals possess the ability to provoke people or interest groups into mobilizing, simply by highlighting a particular issue. For example, horrific images from the battlefield or a controversial medical study can invoke a massive response. Therefore, even if it could be argued that the media cannot exactly influence people directly, they can most certainly have a strong influence on what issues people are made aware of or exposed to.
The danger in all of this is that it could distort the quality of information that people receive and that in turn could distort their decisions. If positive issues are reported in a negative manner then at least some voters will vote against them even if it is contrary to their own interests, and vice versa. This is made worse when there is a high level of voter apathy, which means people will be less interested in taking part or learning about particular issues that could affect them. However, these concerns are nothing new. In fact, with the emergence of the first TV and Radio networks, governments in the Europe and America put forward legislation that forced broadcast media to adopt a neutral position. In Europe, in particular, the state often intervened to nationalize major broadcasting networks.
Furthermore, the rise of media corporations, whose owners were enthusiastic to express their political opinions, seemed to herald the end of the media empires of yesteryear. Yet, nationalizing major broadcast networks or heavy-handed regulation can open up the media to government intervention or censorship, which is highly damaging as well. Even with such efforts, owners of media empires have adapted by swiftly embracing new technology and expanding to different broadcast media such as private terrestrial and satellite TV. Today media empires continue to dominate much of the mainstream broadcast networks in many liberal democracies.
Follow Matthew Lynch, Ed.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@lynch39083