Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Improving Public Dialogue: Media and Citizen Responsibilities

The Challenge

Journalists and citizens each have responsibilities for the quality of public debate. But too journalists fail to give citizens the information they need, and too often, citizens hear only what they want to hear.

What's At Stake

The authors of the Bill of Rights presumed that lively debate would lead to informed decisions about the way we should be governed. That debate and the subsequent decisions are at risk when citizens decide that the media are not meeting public needs or when journalists decide in a vacuum what those needs are. The public, according to Robert M. O'Neil of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, is mistakenly furious at the media. The result, he said, "has been a palpable willingness to silence the media...and to make us more dependent than ever on the government for our understanding of human events. There is no more certain road to the loss of freedom."

Critical questions

  • How do journalists explain themselves to the public? For example: What is news? Does it include exposing the name of a CIA operative?

  • How do we turn fury at the media—which at least suggests an inherent interest in the media—into a way to improve those media?

  • The multiplicity of media is good for debate, with ever-more sources of information available through the Internet. But many people's instinct is to consult only those media with which they agree. How do journalists and citizens alike train themselves to hear news with which they disagree?

  • National and international stories seem more glamorous than local issues to many journalists although there often are multiple sources for "the big stories" but not for the local ones. How do we convince journalists of the need to report local news?

October 23, 2003

Read the text of Jerry Ceppos’s presentation on Improving Public Dialogue: Media and Citizen Responsibilities.

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