Despite differences between the American and Czech mass media, the journalists whom I’ve interviewed so far have strongly agreed on one thing – that someone cannot be an informed citizen in a democratic society without journalism.

The fourth branch of government

“Journalism is a very vital part of democracy,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Multimedia Managing Editor Bruce Jacobs said. “A well-informed public is essential to a strong democracy.”

Jacobs works at Radio Free Europe and previously spent eight years at CNN. He said that when journalism is not performing as well as it should, it influences democracy.

So what exactly determines if the mass media are contributing to a healthy democracy? Jacobs said people do not trust their understanding of what’s going on in their government or society if they feel journalists are not reporting accurately. He said this can occur when people find the media reporting sensationalized news.

Flashy headlines, vague lower thirds and an overwhelming amount of stories that aim to touch the heart and no longer the brain are suffocating hard news. Journalism is slowly losing touch with its responsibility to act as the Fourth Estate. Keeping the public informed is one of the responsibilities that comes with the role of the fourth branch of government.

The ideal situation in a democracy is that citizens are making informed decisions in the voting polls. This isn’t always the case, but by journalists educating us on what’s happening, we can operate responsibly under a government that provides us with so many freedoms.

Tradition meets democracy

Media in the United States have decades more experience than the Czech media acting as the fourth branch of a democratic government. The former media in the Czech Republic (then known as Czechoslovakia until the Velvet Divorce in 1993) promoted government-approved propaganda. In a relatively new democracy, the Czech media has to adapt to challenging and questioning the government.

Will Tizard, a freelance journalist based in Prague, attributes a reluctance in the Czech media to question authority to a few different things. He said the situation is improving, but that many journalists here are young and didn’t grow up with an independent and aggressive media. Because of this, Tizard said, there is a lot of tabloid journalism and “he said, she said” political coverage as opposed to analysis and the demand for answers.

Tizard said the journalistic community in the Czech Republic is sympathetic to the new government as the country adjusts to democracy.

“That’s a very dangerous path to go down once you start giving people special privilege to remain unscrutinized,” Tizard said.

This is especially dangerous if it is true that cynicism is alive and well among the Czech people. Tizard said the Czech community has a tradition of being cynical – especially towards public officials – and has low expectations for them. Therefore, journalists have to question the behavior of leaders and “take the heat for it.”

The culture is somewhat the cause of this, Tizard said. “They [Czech people] will do anything to avoid a confrontation or a challenge. So that’s tough for journalists whose main job is to confront and challenge.”

Questioning policy and leadership is simply not yet a common thing in the Czech Republic, he said.

“I think the standard has fallen over the years,” Tizard said. He called this a global crisis – that the same goes for journalism in the United States right now.

Agenda-setting

The journalists who question the decisions and actions of the government are important members of the checks and balances system. What journalists choose to investigate and tell the public can incite change and even call for reform. Agenda-setting can be controversial, especially when the public thinks it is being done in a biased way. On the other hand, it is the media’s responsibility to address the current questions and issues a society has with its government.

study by the Pew Research Center says the news media considerably contributed to momentum towards legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States. Most of the news coverage surrounded the Supreme Court hearings in March. The findings show supporters of same-sex marriage succeeded in getting a clear message across all sectors of the mainstream media. Support for the measure to legalize same-sex marriage consumed about 47% of the news coverage, starting from a week prior to the Supreme Court hearings and ending May 12. Only 9% focused on the opposition and 44% was neutral or mixed coverage. The analysis of the study says this is probably because the “newsmaking events,” such as endorsements from politicians, legislation at the state level and shifts in public opinion, incited support for the measure.

A long example short, the choice that journalists made to cover this issue, and others like it, brings attention of the matter to the government. Or in this case, provides the momentum.

The bottom line

Whether the majority trusts them or not, we need journalists. The journalists, in an ideal world, are fair parents – keeping the citizens informed while also challenging the government and shedding light on societal issues.

If journalists slump to sensationalized news and do not continue to act as the Fourth Estate, citizen journalism or other forms of sharing information will take over. People are not just getting news updates from the media anymore. With social media on the rise, communicating and releasing information anywhere around the world is easier than ever. News can be spread from a smartphone instantly.

“If it [journalism] doesn’t fulfill that function, something else is going to step in and do that function,” said Brian Whitmore, Europe Editor at Radio Free Europe and previous Boston Globe employee.

Maybe the pressure of evolving technology will keep journalists motivated to keep acting as that fourth branch of government. Maybe consistency of hard news will make a return. Many of the journalists I interviewed are optimistic about the state of the media. As a future journalist, I find myself either optimistic, or determined to help turn the situation around myself.

Blog feature image by Candace Bowen
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