The Media’s Role as Watchdogs
A free and independent press is fundamental to a democratic society and allows us to live with liberty.
Protected by the First Amendment, a free press means our government answers to the people. An independent news media uses its watchdog role to investigate and report on government overreach and wrongdoing and hold those in power accountable for their actions.
Because of press freedom, we get to decide what news, information and entertainment to consume. The government does not have the power to select which media to allow.
Our exposure to a variety of viewpoints encourages self-expression and debate and helps us make informed decisions about our community and country.
This core freedom also entertains us, provides a “first draft of history” and spurs some of us toward activism.
At its best, the press connects us and provides information we rely on to participate in public life – protecting all our freedoms.
What is “the press?”
In general, courts have defined “the press” to include all publishers. Broadcast and cable stations, newspapers, magazines and digital publications enjoy freedom of the press. The line can get blurry for independent journalists or freelancers, which today can mean anyone with a smartphone.
Social media sites are a growing source of news. The companies that own these sites have their own First Amendment rights of free speech.
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What does a free press do?
Press freedom in action takes many forms. Around the world, many people believe a free press ensures a thriving democracy.
People have a need to know. Journalists have a right to tell. News is history in the making and journalists provide the first draft of history. The information gathered by journalists allows people to make decisions and participate in democracy, such as by voting or petitioning the government.
For decades, many Americans have believed that diversity affects the quality of journalism. More diversity in the news and among the people who produce journalism can have a significant impact – whether that diversity reflects race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, life experience or ideology.
Today’s Front Pages
The Freedom Forum’s Today’s Front Pages app allows you to explore the power of press freedom, bringing hundreds of newspaper front pages from around the world to your fingertips each day.
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What are the rights of and limits on the press?
The press can decide what to publish – and what not to publish
News organizations can’t be forced to publish certain content – or prevented from publishing what they want, in most cases.
They have a First Amendment right to refuse letters to the editor and ads. Because they are privately owned entities whose editors have control over content, they are free to promote whatever political, social or economic view they wish.
News organizations are protected from government censorship. They cannot be ordered to let government agencies or officials review reporting before it is published, a practice called prior review. Except in the most serious national security situations, they cannot be stopped from publishing, or prior restraint.
This protection is key to press freedom because a primary role for the press is to hold government accountable, an impossible job if there’s a possibility or fear of censorship.
Limits on the press
Unless restricted by a valid prior restraint (which is rare), the news media are free to publish any information or opinion they want. This freedom, however, does not always protect them from liability. An outlet that publishes false information about a person, for example, can be sued for libel. A news organization similarly can be sued if it unlawfully invades a person’s privacy – like by trespassing on private property without the owner’s consent or harassing someone by continually following them. Most journalists strive to exercise their freedom to publish in a responsible and ethical manner.
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What about student media?
Because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, public elementary and secondary school officials generally have broad leeway to censor school-sponsored publications.
Reporting and photographing in public places
Journalists gather news by observing, talking to people, taking photos and recording videos. Journalists aren’t guaranteed access that others aren’t, but they can be in public anywhere any of us can, with the same rights and restrictions.
The courts have generally stood behind journalists who act reasonably in trying to get information — but courts have not protected those who blatantly disregard police orders. Courts have recognized under the First Amendment that journalists can be left alone by the police, so long as they do not unreasonably interfere with or obstruct police activity or risk their own personal safety.
The Supreme Court has said that recording video in public places can be protected speech if the recorder – professional journalist or otherwise – has a message and an audience to receive it.
What courts don’t all agree on is what limits and restrictions are OK, for example, whether there is sometimes or always a right to record police activity, or whether laws or policies can limit the circumstances in which recording can take place.
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Because the news media’s role includes being a watchdog on the government, the press often gets insider information from leakers who share information about the government that isn’t public and whistleblowers who share evidence of government wrongdoing.
While there are laws to protect whistleblowers, leaking can sometimes be a crime. But journalists can’t be punished for publishing info that was obtained illegally, if the journalist didn’t do anything illegal.
Some states have “shield laws” that protect journalists from being forced to reveal the sources of their reporting and punished if they refuse, but there isn’t a federal equivalent.
How does press freedom protect information access?
A core component of press freedom is making sure the public has access to information that it has a right to know.
The Freedom of Information Act and its counterparts in the states guarantee us the right to request records from any government agency. The law, known as FOIA, enhances our First Amendment rights and directly benefits society because information obtained under the law could expose government wrongdoing.
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Where America stands on press freedom
Americans support the watchdog role of the press but are concerned about how they see this being executed. Americans are divided and uncertain about reliable sources of news and about whether the media does a good job. Learn more from our "Where America Stands" survey.
How can I be a savvy news consumer?
The First Amendment gives us access to a full range of information and freedom to do with that information as we choose. It protects not only good journalism, but also flawed or half-hearted attempts at news.
As information consumers, we don’t want to be misled, falling for every fake headline. We don’t want to be so skeptical it’s impossible to trust anyone or recognize facts, either. And now, we are all content creators and gatekeepers, charged with deciding what we should or should not share.
It’s up to us to analyze and evaluate content we see online or on TV, to make informed decisions about how we wield our freedoms to shape our world.
With the right tools, we can:
- Understand ethical journalism.
- Spot fake news, separating fact from fiction.
- Identify opinion and bias.
- Steer clear of propaganda.
Explore the Freedom Forum’s tools and resources to find the information you need and evaluate its worth. Sign up for a free education account to get access to copyright-protected material only available to registered users.
How we’re improving journalism
The Freedom Forum sponsors programs to support a strong free press and journalists at all levels of their careers. These programs are geared to high school students interested in journalism careers, early career journalists and those already in leadership roles. The goal: By supporting journalists and promoting diversity and opportunity for all in newsrooms, news content will improve.