NATO Seminar,
Bosnia and

2-3 July 1998

"The Role of the Media in a Democratic Society"

Speaking notes by Dr. J.P. Shea, NATO Spokesman

The media as the 'fourth estate': basic functions of the media in a democratic society.

  • inform the public on what is going on: inform democratic choices through the clarification of complex issues, particularly in an age when information is the driving force of economic advancement and international events impact on people's daily lives as never before;

  • provoke public debates leading to greater public participation in important decisions;

  • uncover abuses, pressure for their rectification;

  • alert and mobilize public opinion to humanitarian causes/injustices;

  • allow political pluralism to express itself by advertising different views/ ideological approaches to certain issues;

  • keep politicians attuned to public opinion while offering politicians a medium to explain policies/decisions to public opinion and build the necessary support.

The responsibility of the media towards society: with great power comes great responsibility.

A totally impartial media is neither possible nor desirable. Most newspapers have political or ideological preferences but, it is:

  • essential to maintain distinction between facts and opinion, reporting and analysis;

  • use only trained, professional reporters with knowledge of subject and who check sources before reporting;

  • set the political agenda: explain issues without trivializing or sensationalizing;

  • publish corrections;

  • preserve state secrets / not use information likely to be harmful to national security or to endanger individuals.

The responsibility of society to the media

  • create the conditions for a pluralist media to thrive / survive. This can be done by means of:

    • anti-monopoly/trust legislation; avoid excessive taxation on small media;

    • making large spectrum of airwaves, frequencies available;

    • encouraging a strong private sector in addition to state controlled media;

    • legislating minimum TV/Radio access to all opposition political parties, particularly during election campaigns;

    • freedom of information laws or at least avoiding catch-all official secrets laws that discourage free flow of non-national security related information; release of information after certain dates;

    • legislating appropriate privacy or libel laws that prevent media intrusion into people's private lives or sensationalization of human suffering. However, these privacy laws must not block legitimate investigative journalism of the Woodward/Bernstein variety.

    • having a press council or regulatory commission that upholds standards, clamps down or abusive or inflammatory language calculated to provoke social divisions and unrest, adjudicates complaints and allows individuals/organisations redress for unfair treatment - through libel actions for instance. Rather than the state closing newspapers, it is better for individuals or organizations to drive abusive media out of business through financial penalties.

The relationship between politicians and the media

  • basically it is a love/hate relationship. Both need each other; the one to provide the information, the other to communicate it. The role of the media in a democracy is the result of the permanent "creative tension" between the two sides. It is a messy system but the alternative is a media that is excessively docile or excessively critical of the fact that politics is only "the art of the possible".

  • governments want to control the release of information and present a united front; the media like to look for the cracks and the contradictions. One likes good or predictable news - "dog eats man"; the other likes bad news or the unusual - "man eats dog".

  • politicians like to present their successes and their opinions, to use the media to gain public recognition and enlarge their authority; the media's role is to question these critically, to analyze, to judge and to relativize - the role of the media is never to blindly or unquestioningly support a given political party or cause. That not only undermines the credibility and value of the media (which becomes simply a propaganda machine); it also undermines the political party or cause as no institution can thrive and adapt to change without regular, constructive criticism.

  • if the media are to do their job seriously, politicians must treat the media seriously. Regular flow of information, briefings, an honest objective approach, never lie. If the media do not get information from you, they will usually get it from someone else - less accurately. So it is counter-productive to ignore the media;

  • avoid cover-ups - if a mistake is exposed by the media, acknowledge it and show that you are taking steps to redress it - that restores confidence;

  • politicians and journalists should treat each other with respect but not friendship - politicians who believe they control journalists are invariably disappointed; journalists who get too close to politicians lose their objectivity. The relationship should be close but not too close.

  • in deciding on any policy, it is essential to devise a media strategy as an integral part of the process. The perception of the policy is as important as the policy itself particularly in an age when the media present news in real-time and political leaders announce their decisions to each other via CNN rather than through diplomatic cables. It is inevitable in modern democracies that politicians should use spokespersons and PR consultants to keep their personalities and messages prominent in the media but there is no substitute for political leaders explaining themselves directly to their voters via the media: that is the essence of the democratic process.

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