But this Jack Shafer piece is somewhat convincing. But at the same time, I think he underestimates the degree to which newspapers hold elected officials accountable, particularly in one-party towns/regions, and the number of issues that impact democracy.
An idea I have for my senior thesis is to examine corruption convictions in the United States and to see who originally uncovered the corruption. My bet is that newspapers uncover most of the corruption in areas in which one party dominates, and that officials (attorneys general, inspectors general, opposition researchers) uncover most of the corruption in “swing” areas.
Back to the Shafer piece though. At first, I found this part particularly damning:
Even an excellent newspaper carries only a few articles each day that could honestly be said to nurture the democratic way. Car bomb in Pakistan? Drug war in Mexico? Flood in North Dakota? Murder in the suburbs? Great places to get Thai food after midnight? A review of the Britney Spears concert? New ideas on how to serve leftover turkey? The sports scores? The stock report? Few of these stories are likely to supercharge the democratic impulse.
On those occasions that newspapers do produce the sort of work that the worshippers of democracy crave, only rarely does the population flex its democratic might. How else to explain the ongoing political corruption in Illinois, which its press has covered admirably? Maybe an academic at Champaign-Urbana can prove that newspaper investigations of political corruption “damage” democracy by increasing the public’s cynicism. Or that stellar newspaper coverage that increases participation in the political process stymies democracy by recruiting too many knuckleheads. Or that bad (but well-meaning) journalism—of which there is too much—cripples the democratic impulse.
But then I realized that many of the articles Shafer cites do impact the democratic way. A story on a car bombing in Pakisan helps know whether current U.S. policy in the region is succeeding. A story about the drug war in Mexico helps us understand why illegal immigrants come to the United States and if U.S. aid to the country is helping solve the problem. A story about a flood in North Dakota could raise questions about whether or not the federal government has learned lessons from Hurricane Katrina. A murder in the suburbs could raise questions about crime prevention policies.
If you limit the definition of articles that help democracy to only stories about elections and the activities of legislators, then yes, newspapers don’t always help democracy. But government is involved everywhere now (A fact Shafer, an avowed libertarian, may not appreciate). Virtually every news story can impact people’s perception of governments and shine a light on the performance of elected officials.