How will the relationship between journalism and democracy change in the future?
Modern professional journalism in the United States emerged at a particular moment under particular conditions. Although journalism did not fully professionalize until the early twentieth century, the penny press marked the onset of a new kind of journalism, a new kind of economy, and a new form of mass democracy. Throughout the twentieth century as politics, economics, and technology changed , journalism changed as well, although it never strayed too far from its basic mid-nineteenth- century roots. Now, with massive shifts in other aspects of modern life, will we see the relationship between journalism and democracy change as well?
Journalism is responding to larger changes in society as much as it is driving those changes. So it's important to ask: is democracy itself changing in the twenty-first century? How might we expect it to change more in the future? And how will these changes affect the mechanisms citizens have used to get information about the important public events of the day? There are many possible answers to this set of questions, but let's focus on three of them. In one possible future, journalism remains much the same as it has long been, with only subtle transformations around the edges. In a second future, journalism is radically different, in part because the public and the American democratic state are different as well. Our third possible future actually takes a longer, more historical view: American democracy has already radically changed since the middle of the twentieth century, and journalism is actually just catching up to these changes now.
This first perspective in essence agues that, while there have been many important changes in the news business, there hasn't been a deep change in what journalism "at bottom, is, and is for." Why? Because for journalism to radically change in this way, democracy and the institutions of democracy (elections, campaign advertisements, the relationship between the three branches of government, etc.) would have to change too. And they haven't, or, at least, they haven't changed enough. In an even deeper sense, the larger spheres of society (journalism's notion of the public, the embedded understanding of democratic governance, the economic system, and so on) have not shifted enough to shift the fundamental purpose of journalistic work. Journalists still orient themselves toward a form of professional work and a notion of the public that is mostly the same as it was a century or even two centuries ago.
There is, however, a second and more radical possible future for journalism and for democracy itself. We might also envision a world in which the majority of citizens know very little about politics and care about politics even less, a world where interest groups and politically passionate actors provide not only the normative orientation for news production but also the economic means of sustaining it. In other words, journalism could come to see itself as serving many publics rather than a public, and could become far more comfortable embracing an agonistic system of democratic governance. In this second possible future, journalists would serve special interests rather than the polity as a whole. What's more, the very form of news work might change—it would become all about providing intelligence to people who have economic or partisan reasons to care about the news rather than information about the latest late-breaking general interest events. Journalism of this sort would harken back to an older, pre-penny press form of reporting. It is possible that the news of the future will be more similar to the news of the past.
The third possible future is one in which democracy is actually stronger today rather than weaker, as in the second answer, or largely unchanged, as in the first. In short: democracy wasn't all that strong sixty or seventy years ago, it has grown stronger recently, and the media is finally catching up in the digital age to this changed state of affairs. According to this third view, there is much greater public monitoring of government activity than ever before—more of that activity is open to public scrutiny, more of it is scrutinizable by changes in how government operates. At the same time, more private organizations are busy scrutinizing government than ever before— scrutinizing, publicizing what they find, and sometimes suing the government to enforce their view of what the law requires. The news media has not been an unchanged bystander during this growth of "monitorial democracy"; it has aided, abetted, and taken advantage of these changes. And the new digital media ecosystem—one in which a network of amateur watchdogs and professional interest groups interact with online old and new news organizations—is the partial culmination of this process.
These three answers provide us with different normative understandings of the future relationship between digital journalism and democracy. According to answer one, neither democracy nor the media have changed in fundamental and important ways. If we believe answer two, democracy has gotten weaker. And according to answer three, democracy (and journalism) are in some important ways better now than they have ever been.
Of course, we don't have to pick just one of these answers and one of these futures to the exclusion of all others. Like much else, the future is complicated. But it is not only complicated—it is also contingent. The relationship between journalism and democracy, and indeed the future of journalism in general, depends on ideas not yet considered, elections not yet held, technologies not yet developed, and accidents that have not yet happened. What is the ultimate future of news? We've done our best to sketch out some possibilities. But in the end, only time will tell.