2017 ERC Scholarship Essay Program $1,000 Recipient
Alexander David Peterson, Snohomish, University of Washington

What is the Responsibility of the Media in a Free Society?

In democratic societies across the globe, the media exerts a powerful influence over the political opinions, moral standards, and cultural expectations of diverse audiences, prompting a serious inquiry into the responsibility of mass communication. From the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries in the United States, media served a rich political role, providing information on elections or important developments in domestic and international affairs. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense , a widely-disseminated pamphlet urging independence from Great Britain, was an early form of mass media that helped to shape the course of colonial America. Similarly the Federalist Papers , advocating for the ratification of the United States Constitution, were widely read and stimulated a more robust, centralized form of government. Media has also brought scandals to the attention of ordinary citizens. In the twentieth century, journalists who sought to expose political and industrial corruption, historically known as muckrakers, brought to the American public prominent controversies such as the Teapot Dome Scandal, horrors in the American meatpacking industry, and the Watergate Scandal.

The media continues to play a prominent contemporary role in mass opinion formation. While the media’s ongoing depiction of political issues determines the amount of information known to the average individual on a given topic, the exact presentation of particular sides of an argument also tends to delegitimize alternate solutions. In other words, media has the power to confine a debate to only a few arguments regardless of the existence, validity, or efficacy of alternative ideas. Considering this momentous societal leverage, the media bears a solemn responsibility to act impartially and to present facts as clearly as possible, employing simplification only when the inclusion of additional detail does not significantly alter the underlying value judgment on a topic. For example, an online newspaper covering disproportionate judicial treatment of a minority population also ought to incorporate potential disproportionate crime rates and asymmetric educational opportunity in the region. Without identifying key contributing factors of disparate outcomes, broader society may misidentify their root causes and pursue ineffective solutions.

This reality requires that journalists utilize extreme care in determining the various facets on a single issue, being mindful to present an event’s context, motivation, arguments, and degree of expert consensus when applicable. Media that caters to a particular political bent, popularly known as “fake news,” debases the value of media in a democratic society by promoting ideological echo chambers and encouraging a moral and intellectual dismissal of those with whom we disagree. In this environment, society finds that building consensus becomes increasingly elusive and political platforms become further polarized.

The fact that individuals in a free society must choose between candidates, determine when corruption becomes too detrimental to proper governance, and vote on a variety of direct popular initiatives means that media must continue to hold government accountable through honesty, abundance of information, and proactive investigation. The most effective and reliable defense of liberty and self-determination has and always will be truth ; the media ought to commit itself as a guardian of this sacred virtue.

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