Mass Media and its Impact on the Quality of the Democracy of the United States

Essay, 2017

13 Seiten


Table of Contents










It has widely been acknowledged that there is a reciprocal relationship between free and independent mass media and the quality of a multi-party democratic system (see Sen, 2009; Zink, 2015). Amartya Sen (2009) argues that there is connection between democratic participation, political freedom, and the structure of the mass media. He observes further, that in order to reap the full benefits of democracy, it is crucial to have a free press that allows for the free flow of information and exchange of ideas (Sen, 2009; Zink, 2015; Haryanto, 2017).

Free and independent mass media enable society to decide on the type of policies to pursue, since discussions in the media would lead to direct consideration of goals that society deems important (Sen, 2009; Zink, 2015). In every democracy, there is the need for effective communication and public engagement. This makes the ole of free, independent and viable mass media inevitable. The mass media in every open and free society serve as information disseminators to the public and thus performs essential roles in determining the amount and kind of information presented to citizens for decision-making (Sen, 2009; Smith and Tambini, 2012; Zink, 2015).

Indeed, most people acknowledge the fact that the mass media play crucial and onerous role in all multi-party democracies. To better appreciate the actual impacts of the mass media on a democracy, it is pertinent to examine and understand the effects of the mass media on how democracies work, and both enhance and detract from promoting effective democratic values (Sen, 2009; Zink, 2015). To this end, there are few crucial questions that ought to be interrogated: how does democracy really work? What role does the mass media play towards the quality of a country’s democracy? (See Zink, 2015).

Thus, this paper examines the core roles and impacts of the mass media on the quality of the United States democratic system. Being, one of the oldest, freest and consolidated democratic systems with free, independent and vibrant mass media, the United States serves as a model for many countries to learn from. Therefore, this paper will help ascertain the major impacts of the United States’ mass media on the quality of its long democratic tradition. The paper discusses briefly, the concept and components of a democracy, the generic role of the mass media and effects on the democratic process and explores the role and impacts of the mass media in the United States on its democratic processes.


To begin with, democracy is built on the idea that government’s power flows from the people.

Thus, Frempong (2012) observes that “…what constitutes democracy ultimately lies on the expression of the will of the people”. According to Diamond and Plattner (1999) democracy, refers to “a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realms of citizens, acting indirectly through competition and cooperation of their elected representatives”. This implies that democracy contains in-built mechanisms that ensure and enhance competition for power; inclusive participation and extensive civil and political liberties (Frempong, 2012: 7). For Joseph Schumpeter, democracy is “a system for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Ibid).

For democracy to thrive, certain institutional and procedural conditions must be met; and civil and political rights must be recognized and respected. According to Diamond et al (1995), in a democracy, a balance must be found between competing values and political actors must cooperate in order to compete. To be effective and stable, there must be the belief in the legitimacy of democracy, tolerance for opposition, a willingness to compromise with political opponents, pragmatism and flexibility, trust in the political setting, cooperation among political competitors, moderation in political positions and partisan identifications, civility of political discourse and efficacy and participation based on the principles of political equality (Frempong 2008: 184).

On his part, Wayne (2004) identifies three criteria for measuring the effectiveness of a democracy: the extent of representativeness and responsiveness of the government to the public; resilience of the rules of the game and how government operates and makes policy decisions; and the quality of government policies made and their impacts on society as whole. A government is considered effective if it is more representative of the population, and if social needs, public inputs, and policy responses are well-coordinated government. Further, he observes that democratic governments exist to protect certain core, basic values; which include, among other things, life, liberty, and self-fulfilment as well as political equality. He argues that, to realise these values, there should be equal treatment of all people under the law and government must provide equal opportunity for the citizenry to express themselves through words, actions and votes. What he refers to as the ‘collective good’ and argues represents the third pillar of democratic governance (Zink, 2015: 75).

Even though common values are promoted by every effective and well-consolidated democracy, it may take different forms in different countries based on varying features. Baker (1998) outlines four theoretical forms that democracy takes. They include, inter alia, elitist democracy, liberal pluralism or interest group democracy, republican democracy, and complex democracy (see Zink, 2015).

The elitist model states that government is confronted with complex problems that require expertise in leadership. Here, most people have neither the luxury of time nor the right talent to be involved in every aspect of government’s decision-making process. Therefore, representatives are elected to perform such responsibility by professing expertise practical solutions to problems of society on behalf of the larger public (Baker, 1998; Zink, 2015).

On the other hand, Baker views liberal pluralism or interest group democracy as one version of popular participation. Here, politics is viewed largely as conflict and partial resolution between different groups articulating different interests. There needs to be a way for government to respond fairly to the different concerns of each group. Thus, institutions must be designed in such a way as to create fair bargains or compromises between each group (Baker 1998, 323-331; see also Zink, 2015).

According to Baker, the republican ideas of democracy accept some of the premises and concepts of the liberal pluralist theorists, but differ in important respects. For example, whiles liberal pluralists suggest that interest groups cannot put aside their differences and act for the common good, republican theorists argue that they can [and actually do]. People and groups can have a conception of the common good and be concerned with the welfare of others. Again, individual and collective interests emerge from efforts to formulate values and act on them. Individuals and collectives have to gather information to be able to do this, so that their political concerns and actions are believed to be much more public spirited and community oriented than in the liberal pluralist view (Zink, 2015).

On his idea of complex democracy, Baker argues that it incorporates ideas from each of the other three theories discussed afore. It shares the elitist view that government addresses complex problems that require expert’s guidance to efficiently and effectively address them. Baker also acknowledges that problems and their potential solutions will be advocated by different groups, which makes bargaining and compromise necessary –a liberal pluralist perspective. In the process, he observes, each individual and collective gathers information and acts on the values they form and embrace, but can and do set aside these values in the interest of the public if they choose –a reflection of the republican idea of a public realm that is used for the formulation and pursuit of the common good (Baker 1998, 325-339; see also Zink, 2015). Thus, it implies that, complex democracy involves complex interactions between and among individuals and collectives in society to reach consensual problem resolution through competition and compromises for partial satisfaction of all and sundry.


As the fourth estate of the realm, the mass media embody the means for communicating or transmitting information to a large and widely-dispersed audience. They include the newspapers, journals, magazines; radio, television and the internet (Cengage Learning, 2016). Many liberal theorists argue that free and independent mass media form essential part of the democratic process of all open societies. The media are seen largely to contribute towards freedom of expression, thought and conscience, ensuring responsiveness and accountability of governments to the citizenry, and providing a pluralist platform, fora and channel for political participation, expression and choices by the masses and their interests (Norris, 2007; 2006; Ojo & Adebayo, 2013).

The Freedom of Expression Community (2004) has identified three core roles that the mass media generally perform in every democratic society –these include –informing citizens on matters of public policy and politics by presenting and debating alternatives; acting as watchdogs by covering and exposing political, economic and corporate corruption as well as other forms of abuses of power or inept policies; and empowering citizens to be aware and vigilant of their civil and political rights as well as educating them on how to exercise these rights (Ojo & Adebayo, 2013).

According to Besley, Burgess, and Prat (2002) in democratic systems, there are usually political agency problems –in that citizens are ill-informed about the actions of government and their leaders’ records. Thus, making people think that –politicians act opportunistically and pursue their own whimsical and capricious interests at the expense of the public [‘a principal-agent problem’]. Here, citizens are seen as the principals [actors] who finance government activities through taxation subject to several regulations; with elected government officials and bureaucrats acting as agents who determine policy outcomes. They argue that, the mass media can act as powerful intermediaries and source of information to citizens a negligible cost. They identified three main routes which non-captured mass media in all democracies can affect political outcomes –sorting, discipline and policy salience (Besley, Burgess, and Prat, 2002: 5).

Camara (2008) argues that a free and democratic society is impossible without a free, independent and responsible mass media and active civil society. Saed (2009) observes that the maturing of mass democracy go hand-in-hand with development of mass communication systems and sees the media as important actor in the organization of public life and opinion formation on issues of national interest. He contends that to better understand the role of the mass media in enhancing democracy, there are various major functions the media should be performing –the mass media as sources of information, watchdogs, civic fora and agenda setters (Hanan, Saleem, Ali and Mukhtar, 2016: 335). On his part, Norris (2006) measures the impacts of the mass media on democracy, good governance and human development and concludes that there is a significant relation between critical role of the media and democracy and good governance.

In his book, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen (2009) highlights the role of the mass media and acknowledges that for a democracy to thrive, a free and independent press is crucial for copious reasons. He notes, among other things, that free speech in general and independent mass media in particular, directly improve the quality of a democratic political system. Again, he observes that primarily, effective democratic systems involve exchanges of information and contends that government suppression of information diminishes the media freedom and directly erodes the quality of life even if it is a very rich authoritarian regime in terms of gross national product (Sen 2009). More so, Sen acknowledges the informational role the mass media play through specialized reporting such as on cultural or business affairs and deems it inevitable because it keeps people well-informed about what is happening in their communities and around the world. Thus he argues [with specific regards to investigative journalism]: “… investigative journalism can unearth information that would have otherwise gone unnoticed or even unknown” (Zink, 2015: 80).

According to Sen, the mass media also performs a ‘protective function’ in every society. He argues that the mass media possess the ability to give voice to voiceless and vulnerable people. He argues that rulers are often insulated from the misery of the common people. Thus they can survive national calamity, such as a famine among other disasters without sharing the fate of its victims. Yet if they have to face public scrutiny through the combination of valid elections with a free and independent mass media, the rulers can be held accountable. The idea is to subject the government to some kind of accountability to either prevent such things or to insure a more adequate response (see Zink, 2015).

Open discussion leads to the formation, acceptance, and possible change of values. New standards and priorities emerge through public discourse. Again, public discussions spread new norms across different regions (Sen 2009). The formation and acceptance of values depend on the structure of the mass media itself. The mass media, thus can help fulfill certain core democratic values in a society: the way the government responds to and represents the public. Here, the obvious duty the mass media perform, is an intermediary role between the people and the government (Zink, 2015).

Thus, Odugbemi and Norris (2009) rightly observes that the mass media should ideally serve as the classical agora by bringing plurality together with diverse interests, voices and viewpoints to debate issues of public concerns (Zubascu, 2013: 10). To analyse the major impacts of mass media on the quality of democracy in every society requires a complex understanding of multiple phenomenon that shape a media system in a particular political system. Key assumption is that free and independent media contributes towards building a democracy (Ibid: 14). Thus, as observed rightly by Kweku Rockson (1990), the mass media are a sub-system of broader political and socio-economic systems of every state. [Thus] changes in every political system would affect the quality and fortunes of the mass media.


The mass media embody the means for communicating or transmitting information to a large and widely-dispersed audience-base. Globally, the United States has the freest news media with flexible laws and regulations. The media outlets in the United States include the newspapers, journals, magazines; radio, television and the internet. The mass media have, and continue to perform enormous roles in enhancing and sustaining the quality of democratic system and processes in the United States (Cengage Learning, 2016: 26; Fog, 2013; McCombs, n.d.).


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Mass Media and its Impact on the Quality of the Democracy of the United States
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mass, media, impact, quality, democracy, united, states
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Gilbert Aidoo Arhinful (Autor:in), 2017, Mass Media and its Impact on the Quality of the Democracy of the United States, München, GRIN Verlag,


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