Role Of Privately Owned Media In A Democracy Term Paper

Length: 6 pages Sources: 3 Subject: Media Type: Term Paper Paper: #16137384
Excerpt from Term Paper :


The media has been referred to as the fourth estate, a bedrock element of democratic society. The term has its origins referencing the critical role that media plays in society. The first three estates are taken to be the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. This concept derives from England, in particular attributed to something that Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1841 about there being three estates in parliament, but the reporters in the gallery were the fourth estate." Carlyle had written that they were the most important of all (Crichton et al, 2010).

When applied to a country's media, the terms "free" and "independent" reference privately-owned media that operate without undue interference from the government. The media is considered to be a bedrock of democracy because they are responsible for the flow of information to the populace. More specifically, this refers to organized media companies, prior to the digital age. Today's digital media and social media are different, and unorganized or unofficial sources of information are not included in the concept of media where referencing the fourth estate and its role in democracy. Terms defined, the role that the media plays relating to the conveyance of information is simple – an independent media provides scrutiny and criticism of the people in power in order to hold those people to account.


The fundamental concept of democracy is that it is government by the people for the people. The moral foundation of democracy is that democracy is intrinsically more ideal than other forms of government (Christiano, 2006). People in a nation have the inherent right to self-determination. Under other systems of government – be they monarchy or Communism or any other form of totalitarianism – the people living in a nation do not have self-determination. They are subject to the whims of the ruler or ruling party of the time. By allowing people the ability to determine how their country is run, democracy is morally superior because it does not subject any person to undue influence by another person, unless all parties were able to participate in the process of selecting the leadership. Of course this wasn't the case originally – voting rights took time to diffuse to all citizens.

There are differences...

Going along with this, and differentiating democracy from other systems, is that all citizens have the right to run for elected office – opposition groups are allowed participation in the political process.

Information and the Role of the Media

Democracy thus can exist simply if people have the right to vote and to participate in the political process. However, voting alone does not make for a well-functioning democracy. This is where the media comes into play. Media plays a critical role in the dissemination of information. Since the 17th century, the media plays this role because of its ability to transmit information at scale. In theory, anybody can gather information, but dissemination at scale has until the Internet required a certain amount of capital investment (Coronel, n.d.). First, it was printing presses, then broadcast towers, but there was always some capital investment required. So while information had previously traveled through informal channels (i.e. word of mouth), media allows for the transmission of messages consistently across large audiences.

The ability of the media to transmit information at scale also gives it considerable power. Consistent messaging at scale allows for ideas to diffuse quickly, giving media outlets considerable influence. With respect to printing presses, the barriers to entry are relatively small, so it is possible for many individuals or groups to gain access to this form of media, though for larger presses the barriers to entry are higher. The advent of broadcast media, first radio and then television, increased the barriers to entry. Not only was the cost of investment higher, but there were bandwidth restrictions. Devices to receive transmissions (i.e. radio and TVs) were limited in what bandwidths they could handle, and that placed a significant barrier to entry for broadcast media. Combined with the fact that broadcast media and massive printed media have high barriers to entry, the power of media increased during the 20th century.

Media outlets find themselves with only a handful of competitors. This power means that the messages that they disseminate will come to dominate the common discourse. People know what their information sources tell them. Thus, media plays a role in educating people, and plays a role in shaping the public discourse. The media determines what subjects to discuss, and what the tone and content of that discussion will be. For many adults, and in particular in the pre-Internet era, the media was the dominant way that information about politics, the economy and other subjects of governance and national merit were disseminated in societies. Even today, formal media maintains substantial competitive advantage over informal channels, though recent events suggest that perhaps this influence is waning in favor of social media propaganda (The Economist, 2017). That is a discussion for another day.

Privately-Owned Versus Government Media

The high level of influence that the media has over public discourse naturally makes it a powerful…

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