The Role of the Media

The Poliics Shed Podcast

The role of the media in democracies: what is it, and why does it matter?

Posted on January 30, 2024 by The Constitution Unit

The media plays a vital role in democracies, as an arena for debate and a source of accountability. But concerns have been raised about the health of the sector in the UK. Caitlin Farrell and Lisa James argue that safeguarding the media’s role requires action from both politicians and the media.


In a democracy, the media educates, informs and entertains – including through news, opinion, analysis, satire and drama. It is a key route through which the public hears about politics, and it plays an important role in shaping the public agenda and forming public opinion.

However, in recent years frequent concerns have been expressed about the health of the news media. Attacks on media independence or broadcaster impartiality have raised alarm. Media market changes have led to cuts in local and investigative journalism and have amplified polarising rhetoric and misinformation. Monopoly ownership may yield an undue concentration of power.

Why does the media matter for democracy?

The media is central to democratic participation. It creates an arena for the exchange of opinion, discussion and deliberation – a space sometimes referred to as the ‘public sphere’. It provides a channel of communication between politicians and the public, allowing politicians to communicate their beliefs and proposals, giving the public the information that they need in order to participate, and allowing the voices of the public to be heard by politicians. The media also assists in holding politicians to account – through reporting, and direct scrutiny such as interviews.

The media has an important role in the formation of public opinion. Via the content and tone of its coverage, it can influence how members of the public understand an issue, which topics they consider important, and what information they use in forming overall political judgements.

These central media roles of influencing public opinion and aiding political accountability mean that politicians engaged in ‘democratic backsliding’ around the world often threaten media independence. This can take many forms, from overt censorship, persecution via the law and violence against journalists, to funding cuts and the takeover of supposedly independent media outlets or regulators.

What does a free and healthy media look like?

A free and healthy media requires several features, including media independence, pluralism, the existence of impartial outlets, and high journalistic standards.

Media independence refers to editorial independence from both political interference and financial control. Though politicians have a right of reply relating to media content about them, independence requires that media outlets or individual journalists should not come under undue pressure to present (or suppress) particular points of view or facts.

Media pluralism requires a diverse sector, providing a range of viewpoints. Monopolistic ownership can threaten pluralism, if this reduces the range of views represented. Beyond that, diversity is best achieved through a mix of market-oriented outlets, public service media (responding to needs that purely commercial outlets might not address, such as current affairs or arts programming), as well as media presence in local, community and minority settings, to avoid ‘news deserts’.

Impartial media outlets ensure the public can access unbiased information – a function with strong public support. The UK’s split model requires broadcasters, but not other outlets, to be impartial.

High standards from journalists are also crucial. Journalistic ethics include high standards of fact-checking and verification, avoidance of misleading emphasis, protection for sources, and respect for privacy. Such ethics are vital to maintaining public trust, as shown by the 2011 phone-hacking scandal. They also allow the media to counter disinformation – rather than unwittingly to spread it.

Regulation of standards is necessary, but also complex, requiring balance with the need for media independence. For example, the current Media Bill proposes to repeal punitive damages for newspapers that do not belong to an approved regulatory regime. Some have seen this system of damages – which exists in law but has never been implemented – as threatening press freedom, while others have considered it essential to ensure minimum regulatory standards.

What risks does the media face?

As indicated above, responsibility for maintaining a healthy media rests with both politicians and the media directly. Experts have identified risks from both quarters.

1. Threats to broadcaster impartiality

2. Threats to media independence

3. Polarising content

4. Weakened local and investigatory reporting

5. Disinformation and misinformation

6. Monopolies

How can the media’s role be safeguarded?

Politicians should respect the media’s role in communicating with the public and as a mechanism for accountability, even when that is uncomfortable. In practice, this means recognising the importance of an independent, pluralistic media, including ensuring that public service broadcasting remains free from political pressure, and that regulators’ independence is protected. It also means taking seriously the dangers that unfettered media freedom, and changes brought about by the economic pressures on the sector, may pose to healthy democratic discourse.

For its part, the media needs to recognise the impact that it can have on public life, and the responsibility that this entails. This includes the importance of accuracy – not only through fact-checking stories, but also through challenging false or misleading claims by others, and prioritising the availability of authoritative information.

More broadly, both groups have a responsibility to adopt a moderate tone that promotes healthy discourse, prevents misinformation, and avoids a polarising effect on society.

About the authors

Caitlin Farrell is a former Visiting Lecturer in Media Law at City University London.

Lisa James is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit.