A free media is one of the central principles of democracy, and that involves great responsibility from the media's side and from us.
Our need for sensation
Generally speaking, there are far better pictures in the threats to democracy than in democracy itself. Bombings, planes flying into skyscrapers, street riots and mad dictators are, by definition, better news than thoughtful politicians who have been sitting all night in negotiations - even if the images of East Germans pouring through the Berlin Wall and the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were not entirely bad!
Thanks to the way our emotions and our brains work, we would simply rather hear a sleazy or an exciting story than struggle with dry facts and complicated political decisions. This implies even greater responsibility from the media and from us. It requires of the media that they do not run after the biggest sensations and the biggest audience figures, but that they also ensure varied, penetrating news coverage. It requires of the rest of us that we actually make the effort to become interested in the issues upon which democracy is founded; issues which from time to time are complicated.
To ensure the existence of free, independent news coverage and debate, there are public service broadcasters in radio and television in a number of democratic countries. These broadcasters do not have to compete with the commercial channels and they are guaranteed independence as regards content and from political interference, at least in theory. In practice, in many countries the public service channels hold just as close an eye on audience numbers as they do in the advertising-funded channels, because if they didn't, broadcasts in the public service would become just as boring as in the most dismal dictatorships and no-one would watch or listen to them. Now and then, there is even political interference in the editorial work or in the management of public service institutions, which is deeply problematic.
There is thus a huge challenge involved in making news coverage and public debate in the media both popular and serious so that we ensure the survival of democracy.
A couple of suggestions
Maybe it's time for some fresh thinking. Instead of composing more jingles and making more logos for news broadcasts on television, why not go in the opposite direction and create simple or "instant" TV? What about cutting out all the cosmetics and giving us nationwide television news captured with mobile phones here and now by journalists and by people who are on the spot?
There is also a challenge in giving democracy activists as much column space and television and radio coverage as the rioters and troublemakers. Where are all the real heroes and the frontline fighters for democracy in the media picture - all those who want to achieve something with their efforts for society? Where are the humanitarian relief workers, police officers, exiled writers, trade unionists, peace mediators and all the imams, rabbis and priests who are speaking up for peace?
Nothing could be more undemocratic than imposing restrictions on the news that should be broadcast, but why is the programme schedule only cleared for the destructive idiots and the extra broadcasts made about them? If you are an attention-seeking young person who thinks the world is unfair, what mouthpiece can you turn to without smashing things to pieces, and what role models are there in the media? Who is it, quite frankly, that we give our attention to as a reward for their actions?
Finally, it should cause concern that political debates, particularly in the run-up to an election, have to be built up as duels, where one speaker preferably wins over the other one. Would it be wrong in principle to invite three political opponents into the studio with the sole purpose of enlightening the voters?
Ultimately, the content of our news media is solely dictated by us and our need for entertainment, so maybe it would in everyone's interest if both we and the media begin to freshen ourselves up, not least because the internet and blogs are becoming increasingly popular and, unlike the mainstream media, they have no journalistic principles concerning the dissemination of facts rather than gossip and pure fabrication. The serious media in the democracies are a guarantee that we as citizens have a true picture of how the world looks, and it is therefore the serious, mainstream media which are a necessity for democracy.
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