Reclaiming the role of the press as the fourth pillar of democracy

It was not long ago, before the internet era, that the press could claim its place as the fourth pillar of democracy.

Endy Bayuni

Endy Bayuni

The Jakarta Post


Verifying stories and holding those in power to account is more important in the internet media landscape than speed and clicks. (Shutterstock/File)

February 9, 2022

JAKARTA – The press as the purveyor of news and information is struggling – globally and not just in Indonesia. The digital disruption is hurting it so that many platforms are financially bleeding, and with fierce competition from millions of non-journalists who are also disseminating their own work, their journalists are rapidly losing their audiences and influence.

But the wrong response to these trends could soon lead it to even lose its raison d’être: as an institution that provides checks and balances on the powers that be, which is essential for a functioning democracy.

The press as we know it is undergoing an identity crisis to the point it may be worth considering changing the name “National Press Day”, which falls on Feb. 9, to something that is more 21st century. The term “press” originates from the printing presses used in the past to produce newspapers, long before radio and television came on the scene, and even longer before the internet and social media era.

Insisting on calling it the “press” only further condemns both the industry and the journalism profession that comes with it into the annals of history, which is where they are heading now.

The alternative names given are not exactly fitting. There is nothing “mass” about the media institutions even if they have gone online, and there is even less that is “mainstream” about them when they no longer command large audiences. Calling them “legacy” media makes them antiquated.

It was not long ago, before the internet era, that the press could claim its place as the fourth pillar of democracy. It was the eyes and ears of the public in keeping accountable the other three pillars – the executive and legislative branches, and the judiciary. Democracy cannot function without a free and independent press, which in turn derives its power as a quid pro quo from the people.

That was true then, and it should be even truer in today’s information ecosystem. That is not the case, however, as the watchdog role seems to be missing, diluted or barely heard in the chaotic digital news landscape.

Disseminating news is no longer the monopoly of the media institutions. Bloggers, citizen journalists and social media users are also putting out their news and information, at times even going viral. To complicate matters, trolls are posting misinformation and disinformation on the internet.

As the internet becomes the main platform for media institutions to disseminate news, they find they must share the field with millions of others. Gone are the days when newspapers and television or radio broadcasters had control over the flow of news and information, to the point of even setting the national agenda.

Unfortunately, in the migration to the digital world, many media institutions are discarding the principles of good journalism in the competition for clicks and views. When they set speed as the overarching goal, they sacrifice accuracy and fairness, the two chief tenets of journalism. When they do this, it becomes harder for the audience to distinguish them from the other news purveyors.

Media institutions can still create a niche in this big landscape and stay relevant by staying above the fray, rather than trying to stay ahead of the game. It is journalism that in the end distinguishes them from the rest.

Speed may seem important in this digital era, but in journalism it should never trump accuracy and fairness. Many media institutions have built their name and reputation in the print and broadcasting world for decades by upholding the tenets of good journalism, verifying stories and making the point of covering both sides to earn public trust.

Such practices take time, but that should not change in the digital world despite the competition. Abandoning these principles would be the death knell of journalism.

Even with diminishing audiences and influence, media institutions and their journalists still have a crucial role to play to support democracy today: providing news people can trust.

The audience today may enjoy the wider array of choices for news and information the internet offers, but they know where to go for credible and trustworthy news. As the landscape is bombarded with misinformation and disinformation, the presence of media that practices good journalism becomes more important than ever.

If democracy has suffered in recent years, one explanation is because of the declining role of the press in carrying out its mandate as the fourth pillar. In its struggle for survival and staying relevant, many media institutions and journalists have abandoned their watchdog role to keep those in power accountable. There is strong evidence that governance in the other three pillars has gone almost unchecked in recent years, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In reclaiming its role as the fourth pillar of democracy, the press must know that its future hinges not only on its ability to raise the finances needed and to come up with business models appropriate for the digital world but, more importantly, on its ability to nurture public trust and support.

That role is not given for free. Journalists must stay true to the profession, and the ethics that come with the profession, to serve the people and to serve democracy. ***


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