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A Delicate Dance between Distance and Access

Fumiko Nagano's picture

It is generally accepted that independent news media are one of the main building blocks for good governance. Ensuring media’s independence from the control of the powerful is a difficult task, however. While the media must maintain a critical distance from the government so as to maintain their objectivity in reporting the news, they also need to stay close enough to government in order to access the information they seek. The issues of distance and access are the two sides of the same coin, and they confront the government as well. On the one hand, the government has to protect both the privacy of sensitive information and integrity of important decision-making processes by keeping the media at bay, but on the other hand, government also needs to maintain an amicable relationship with the media so that the media would tell its side of the story and frame issues in the way it wants them framed.

The tension arising from these competing interests is difficult to resolve, sometimes creating situations where the relationship between the government and media becomes too cozy, effectively preventing the media from playing its watchdog role. The National Public Radio’s “On the Media” recently re-broadcasted a program on the privilege enjoyed by Japan’s press clubs—exclusive, membership-only associations made up of journalists from major newspapers and positioned within public institutions, such as ministries, prefectural governments, and political parties, as well as large corporations. The program shows how troublingly close the relationship can be among government, corporations, and the media in some countries.

In When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina, W. Lance Bennette, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston examine the U.S. media’s reporting during the Bush presidency and their failure to fulfill their watchdog role to challenge the administration’s stances on a number of key issues, particularly the justifications for Iraq and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The authors conclude that the U.S. media system generally performs well when the existing political system is already functioning well, with the government actively debating and giving public scrutiny to policies that affect its citizens. However, the media system has a tendency to break down when government’s checks and balances are weak—that is, precisely when the system needs the media most to shine light on dubious government policies and initiatives and open them up to debate. According to the authors, “The U.S. journalism establishment has developed a largely self-imposed idea of what qualifies as legitimate political news—a standard that makes it difficult for the press to exercise its constitutionally protected independence from government at the very times democracy most needs it. The reigning press standard favors news that consists of simple, dramatic narratives told from the standpoint of those in power. When the powerful are challenged by other players deemed able to influence government decisions or election outcomes, the news includes the alternative perspectives of the challengers.”

These examples demonstrate the sensitive nature of the relationship between government and media that can be problematic for good governance, and that, even in established democracies, the competing interests of distance and access present major obstacles to media in their effort to remain independent. In the development context, this means that the same delicate dance required of journalists in developing countries becomes more complicated (depending on the context) by a number of challenges, including lack of journalism education and training, lack of journalism ethics, government control of the media, and media owned by powerful interests close to government, to name a few. Regardless, the news media must continue to be cognizant of their role in society as the fourth estate: to counterbalance the power of authority and defend the public’s interests.

Photo credit: Flickr user mizanthrop