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Posted: Wednesday 18 September, 2019 at 10:58 AM

Role of the Media in a Democratic State

By: Stanford Conway,

    BASSETERRE, St. Kitts – IN recent times, politicians on both sides of the political divide in St. Kitts and Nevis, as well as their respective activists and supporters, have been bashing some of the media houses and their journalists – including the one for which this writer pens articles.


    Not only some politicians, but many people in the Federation do not understand the role of the media. They perceive journalists as a group of inquisitive individuals pursuing them, and even invading their privacy, to get information on an event or issue that they might deem personal.

    On one hand, some of them are correct in their perception because there is a category of journalists who are glory-hunters. In wanting to make a name for themselves they colour (sensationalise) most news stories, exempt accuracy and verification, and omit balance and fairness.

    But on the other hand, they need to understand the role of the media.


    The term media, which is being used as a singular noun in this commentary, is derived from the word medium, which means carrier or mode. It can be defined as a communication channel through which news, entertainment, education, data or promotional messages are disseminated.

    Historically, the term media was first used with the advent of newspapers and magazines. However, with the passage of time, it had broadened by the inventions of radio, cinema, television and, most recently, the Internet.


    The primary role of the media is to keep people informed. The media helps us to know current situations locally, regionally and internationally, and it has a strong social and cultural impact on society. 

    Because of the media’s inherent ability to reach large numbers of the public, it is widely used to convey message to build public opinion and awareness.

    The media reports the news, serves as an intermediary between the government and the people; it helps to determine which issues should be discussed; and it keeps people actively involved in community activities and politics.

    As one writer said, the media is the overseer of the political system and it would be a great force in nation building if it plays its role honestly. 

    The writer also said that it plays a great role in bringing the common man and woman close to their leaders and that it focuses on bringing details of all major political situations, decisions and scenarios so that people could better understand their rights and make wise decisions.


    There are Four Estates of democracy – the Legislative, Executive, Judiciary and the Media. The Fourth Estate was coined in the late 18th century by an English Parliamentarian named Edmund Burke, and, over the years, it has come to be known as the “People’s Watchdog”.

    It is believed that the most important role of the media in politics is to report the news. However, in so doing, the majority of people must trust the media to provide them with information, as democracy requires that citizens be informed because they must be able to make educated voting choices.

    Talk shows have been in existence for many decades the world over. It is believed that talk shows were introduced by radio then television and first started with famous people talking to each other in an informal way and are asked questions about different topics.

    Today, in St. Kitts and Nevis, talk shows are constantly being used by politicians to inform the populace about what they did, what they are doing and what they intend to do. They also take swipes at each other during these shows.

    Talk shows are also used by social commentators to air their views on a number of issues that they feel are worthy of discussion.

    All media houses depend on advertisments for their survival, but talk shows provide greater earnings. However, though the media plays a common-carrier role by providing a line of communication between the government and the people, in which the people learn what the government is doing, and the government learns from the media what the public is thinking, some politicians often complain of media bias.

    What they complain about?

    They complain that the media’s ability to decide which stories to report often reflect its partisanship. Although this is true to some extent, most major media houses report the same stories more or less objectively. But what the public needs to know is that bias is often restricted to the commentary and opinion sections of the media.

    Like talk shows, commentaries and opinions are followed by disclaimers.

    Journalism Ethics

    Every media house [print and electronic] has its own policy, but their policies ought not to be in conflict with journalism ethics. Some of these media houses and their operatives have no regard for ethics. Their primary aim is for the sale of newspapers [print] and to attract listeners/viewers [electronic] to gain more advertisments, while their ultimate goal is profitability.

    In other words, all business entities operate on the basis of profit maximisation but, at the end of the day, it pays to be credible, ethically and morally responsible in whatever one puts on the market for public consumption.

    Further, as earlier mentioned, the media is known as the “People’s Watchdog” and any occurrence that may affect a society, the people have a right to know through the media.

    However, some individuals, including governments, are not in agreement, but in every democratic state the press is said to be free and people must be kept abreast with what governments are doing, because governments are the people’s servants and it is they [the people] who elected them to manage the countries’ affairs. 

    According to Melvin Mencher, the free press justifies its existence in terms of moral imperatives; it rationalises much of its behaviour with moral declarations.

    If public consent, freely given, is essential to the proper functioning of a democracy, then for the consent to be meaningful the public must be adequately informed by a press free of government or any other control.

    As said by the late American President Thomas Jefferson, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

    Although it should be understood that a free press must exist in a democratic state, the onus lies with editors on what to publish. He/she must ensure all articles are factual and they do not border on libel or slander.

    The editor and the journalist must remember their role. That is, their concern is the public, not special interest.

    On matters that require the balancing of the press’ self-interest or the interest of a special group against the general interest, the latter should prevail.

    One social scientist noted that defining the public or general interest is not easy, “for, as some maintain, there is no public interest but a melange of special interests. But there are concerns shared by most people, and access to information is one of the basic needs of a democratic society”.

    However, when all is said and done, the journalist is the one who gets the news, but he/she must remain loyal to the facts. 

    As John Dewey puts it, “Devotion to fact, to truth, is a necessary moral demand.”

    The journalist must have a reverence for rules, codes, laws and arrangements that give a sense of community. Such concern causes the journalist to keep careful watch for any action that can divide people into hostile groups, classes or race.

    He/she must also avoid valueless objectivity, for this can lead to what philosopher Stuart Hampshire describes as an “ice age of not caring”.

    Journalists must also believe in the methods of journalism – the gathering of relevant thoughts, the evaluation of those facts through analysis and the synthesising of them in the story. Conviction to this method will certainly lead to some kind of truth worth sharing.

    Journalists rely heavily on their sources for information, but, at times, the price for information may be too high.

    When a journalist guarantees sources anonymity by quoting them without attribution, the journalist can be made an accessory to the management of the news.

    According to Melvin Mencher, there is no problem with a reporter accepting information on a confidential basis if the material can be checked out and its accuracy independently determined. Then the reporter can attribute it in a story to other sources. However, the information offered on a not-for-distribution basis usually is non-verifiable and the reporter then has to bear some responsibility for the information.

    Conclusively, journalists must demonstrate a willingness to hold belief in suspense. That is: the ability to doubt until evidence is obtained; the willingness to go where the evidence points instead of putting first a personally preferred conclusion; and the ability to hold ideas in solution and use them as hypotheses instead of dogmas to be asserted.



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