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We the People Book Cover
We the People: A Concise Introduction to American Politics, 4/e
Thomas E. Patterson, Harvard University

The News Media

Chapter 10 Summary

In the nation's first century, the press was allied closely with political parties and helped the parties mobilize public opinion. Gradually the press freed itself from this relationship and developed a form of reporting, known as objective journalism, that emphasizes the fair and accurate reporting of newsworthy developments. The foundation of modern American news rests on the presentation and evaluation of significant events, not on the advocacy of partisan ideas. The nation's news organizations do not differ greatly in their reporting; broadcast stations and newspapers throughout the country emphasize many of the same events, issues and personalities, following the lead of the major broadcast networks, a few elite newspapers and the wire services.

The press performs four basic roles in a free society. In their signaler role, journalists communicate information to the public about events and problems that they consider important, relevant, and therefore newsworthy. The press also serves as a common carrier, in that it provides political leaders with a channel for addressing the public. Third, the press acts as a public protector, or watchdog, by exposing deceitful, careless or corrupt officials. The American media can, and to a significant degree does, perform these roles adequately.

The press is less well suited, however, to fulfill the role of public representative. This role requires a consistent political viewpoint and public accountability, neither of which the press possesses. The media cannot be a substitute for effective political institutions. Its strength lies ultimately in its capacity to inform the public, not in its attempts to serve as its representative.