Journalism has long been regarded as an important force in government, so vital to the functioning of a democracy that it has been portrayed as an integral component of democracy itself. In 1841, Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all” (On Heroes and Hero Worship). Four years earlier, Carlyle had used the phrase in his French Revolution: “A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up, increases and multiplies; irrepressible, incalculable.” Carlyle saw the press as instrumental to the birth and growth of democracy, spreading facts and opinions and sparking revolution against tyranny.
The fact of the matter is that democracy requires informed citizens. No governing body can be expected to operate well without knowledge of the issues on which it is to rule, and rule by the people entails that the people should be informed. In a representative democracy, the role of the press is twofold: it both informs citizens and sets up a feedback loop between the government and voters. The press makes the actions of the government known to the public, and voters who disapprove of current trends in policy can take corrective action in the next election. Without the press, the feedback loop is broken and the government is no longer accountable to the people. The press is therefore of the utmost importance in a representative democracy.
Another, related, function of the press is to expose people to opinions contrary to their own. This function is perhaps the most valuable in the Internet age; while people can in theory get information about the actions of their government from online sources, it is all too easy to find opinions online that match one’s own. Informed decision-making on the part of voters requires an awareness of multiple points of view, which is not likely to be obtained if voters bear the sole responsibility of seeking out information on relevant issues. The news media provide a forum for debates to take place, as well as moderating and curating the arguments presented by all sides. It is, of course, idealistic to suppose that media give equal, or even proportional, representation to all opinions, but the fact that many media outlets present themselves as nonpartisan sources of information makes them a better forum for debate than online sources such as blogs, which are typically maintained by one individual or a small group of people with similar opinions.
News media also foster a sense of community between groups that might otherwise see themselves as distinct. Media have presented relatively local events, such as natural disasters, as matters of national and even international concern. The sense of community created by such portrayal is not fabricated; arguably, such events should be the concern of all in an increasingly globalized world. A sense of community is vital to democracy, in which voters must often check their own liberties for the common good. In addition, an awareness of distant events is vital to the functioning of a globalized capitalist economy, in which local events may have worldwide economic repercussions.
In a 2002 press briefing, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld noted that “we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns-the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Of course, Rumsfeld was speaking from the standpoint of national security, but the concept of unknown unknowns can be readily applied to the domain of public awareness of current issues and events. The public no longer needs traditional media to resolve its known unknowns, since knowledge on virtually any topic can be obtained effortlessly online. Therefore, the purpose of journalism in an Internet-age democracy is to make the public’s unknown unknowns into knowns-to expose people to issues and opinions that they would not have thought to look up on their own.