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date: 24 February 2024

Public Service Journalismfree

Public Service Journalismfree

  • Jackie HarrisonJackie HarrisonDepartment of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield


For some scholars, the role of public service journalism is profoundly ethical, though it exists amidst a diversity of incommensurate but not necessarily incompatible views and values. Public service journalism exists as part of a global media that has been referred to as a “mediapolis”: descriptively, a place, a communicative system where the world is constituted, and by means of which we learn about others. Normatively it is an ideal of communication, a place where information and opinion may be expressed civilly to enable good choices to be made and public concerns to be thoughtfully addressed. As such, it is a place of equal expression. However, practically it must contend with finding a way to identify, value and integrate a wide array of voices. A mediapolis needs to become a place where a just and hospitable media enables the fundamental process of finding ways of living together.

A key principle for the governance of mediapolis concerns “journalism”: uncensored, diverse, reliable journalism is essential to the making of well-informed decisions and a healthy political life. To this end and in order to anticipate a digital future where there exists an ethical mediapolis for global public benefit and where the internet and good journalism go hand in hand and are no longer antagonistic, contemporary public service journalism should reconceive the news as discursive rather than monological and informational, and the public as consisting of an interpreting, acute audience of citizens, rather than one of informed readers. If such a consummation were to be achieved then critical news judgements would be the norm, no matter how large or small the audience. Journalism would be an effective watchdog because government would be perpetually aware that a sufficient number of confident, attentive citizens is following the news and that, in consequence, it must function knowing that there is a constant risk of shame, disgrace, conviction and loss of popularity and office. In sum, public service journalism consists of civil expression of information, accommodating a multiplicity of voices, the news conceived of as discursive rather than merely informational, and the public conceived of as critical interpreting citizens rather than informed readers.


  • Journalism Studies

Updated in this version

The author has updated this article to reflect more current scholarship. The changes include additional endnotes, updated citations, and a minor revision to language throughout the text.


Liberty of the Press and Freedom of Expression

The background to public service journalism is about nothing other than the freedom and independence of the news media to go about their job of educating the public by providing a report and commentary on significant events.1 Or to put the matter negatively, without it the public silence that ensues is a function of the exercise of unchecked power (Keane, 2013, pp. 228–231).

The importance and significance of the liberty of the press and freedom of expression are well understood and have been argued “for and against” under all forms of political systems. Liberty of publicity and of the press and publishing is one of the basic aspects of the right to free expression. Historically, writers as diverse as Milton,2 Spinoza,3 Hume,4 Blackstone,5 Erskine,6 Kant,7 Madison,8 Jefferson,9 Bentham,10 Tocqueville,11 Mill,12 Weber,13 Lippmann,14 and Dewey15 have all understood its desirability and its dangers; that is that free speech comes with certain forms of responsibility and that the liberty of the press carries with it a civil relationship which exists between what is said and who reads or hears it. In other words, there is an important relationship between the press (widely conceived of) and the public (differentially conceived of). It is also well understood that this relationship can variously be a force for good or for harm.

However, to understand this fundamental bifurcation it is necessary to recognize that because of a variety of civil, economic and political circumstances, modern journalism, namely factual news reporting and informed commentary, has had to conceive of serving the public in one of three ways: (1) as a civil public of deliberative citizens where public service journalism is publicly supported and funded; (2) as a consumerist public of news purchasers where public service journalism coexists as privately supported and funded; and (3) as a partisan public whose particular and distinctive voices and views are the only ones represented, which can be either publicly funded or privately funded.

These publics represent three distinctive kinds of intellectual and spatial domains for news organizations that claim to be undertaking a version of public service journalism. Without doubt the civil domain of the citizen public is the natural home for public service journalism (Public 1). The commercial domain of the consumer public (Public 2) is a somewhat hostile environment of commercial imperatives for public service journalism. Nonetheless, it remains an ambition of public service journalism that it can find a way to exist comfortably alongside the diktats of commercial imperatives—though this is an ongoing challenge—and of course, some forms of coexistence are better than others. A partisan public (Public 3) requires a partisan media, and its domain of intense political parties and convictions is the most inimical to public service journalism conceived of in terms of Publics 1 and 2.

Accordingly at one level of consideration the public is simply served by news journalism giving it what it wants (or is interpreted as wanting) and as such all three public domains are sometimes judged to be of equal standing. The argument that follows on from this is that there is no simple definition of public service journalism. Rather its definition depends on what type of public is envisioned, what type of service provision is regarded as appropriate for any one of these three particular publics and, directly related to that, how journalism is practised and under what conditions. Claims to be providing public service journalism, therefore, can appear to come with no fixed guarantees of any civil or democratic kind. Indeed it is an appellation claimed equally by modern irredentist and populist movements, authoritarian regimes as well as illiberal and liberal democracies. It is constitutionally supported in repressive regimes and progressive regimes alike. In fact, public service journalism is, as Charles Taylor (2007, p. 186) said of the public sphere, “a central feature of modern society. So much so, that even where it is in fact suppressed or manipulated it has to be faked.” So unless publics are to be deceived by such fakery, or simply (and unhelpfully) public service is regarded as consisting of nothing other than giving the public what it claims it wants, another level of consideration needs to be engaged with when discussing public service journalism: the fact that public service journalism has certain features that non-public service journalism does not have. Importantly, these features of public service journalism are independent of how the service is economically funded or politically regarded. They are, however, dependent on how the public is conceived of and how it should be served. If the public is conceived of as a citizenry, then consumer rights and political claims do not trump citizen rights. This does not mean that public service journalism cannot coexist in a mixed media market, but that it regards itself as having civil values that ultimately outweigh purely economic or political considerations. This, in turn, means that public service journalism can only be undertaken if certain precepts are followed: first, that it intends to be truth telling, and second, that it has to be demonstrably able to deploy an objective, fair and rigorous method of inquiry when reporting an event. Only in this way can it at the same time accommodate a range of contested views and accounts of events in an evenhanded manner. It is the extent to which public service journalism conveys these facts and views accurately and sincerely in a synoptic form that informs the perceptions the public have about whether the news succeeds in achieving a homologous relationship to the world and the extent to which it can be trusted as truthful (Harrison, 2006). To understand this, public service journalism needs to be explored in the context of a public comprising citizens, consumers and partisans.

Public 1: A Civil Public of Citizens

In ideal circumstances public service journalism, which conceives of itself as speaking to a public of citizens inhabiting a robust civil sphere and which is publicly funded, is best described as a type of merit good. Merit goods are a response to arguments about market failures (Brevini, 2013; Davies, 2004; Feintuck & Varney, 2006; Levy, 2013) whereby goods that are beneficial to the public (Brevini, 2013) would not necessarily be produced without interventions in markets. In conventional economic terms, a merit good can be understood as a service whose value and worth is greater than the value and worth an individual places upon it. Such goods then bring some form of beneficial civil power to produce optimal improvements (of some kind) for all. Consequently, merit goods have intrinsic properties that are regarded as producing desired outcomes even if individuals dispute the cost of supporting these outcomes. Examples abound: publicly funded health care, art galleries, museums, libraries and, particularly relevant to public service journalism, public service media. In the case of public funding for public service journalism the desired outcomes hinge on the view that such journalism can generate civil benefits. These are usually described in cultural and political terms (Curran et al., 2009). The former is to be found under the rubric of culture, education and information, and the latter is to be found under the rubric of holding state and market power to account. In both cases the public are viewed as citizens whose citizenship is enhanced by knowing and understanding events in the world and by being enabled (by knowing and understanding “what is going on”) to take part in what has been variously described as “public opinion,” the “voice of public opinion,” the “formation of public opinion” “public will formation,” “public reason,” “will of the people,” the “democratic will” or the “democratic voice.” In short, public service journalism serves the “court of public opinion,” or an ongoing “public opinion tribunal.”16 According to this view, public service journalism is to be held in high esteem because it can be trusted as a provider of information that enables well-informed decisions to be arrived at, which should then go on to limit the predatory powers of the market and to influence the formation and roll-out of government policy.17 That is, it is viewed as a fundamental aspect of democratic life and as such must be publicly funded and supported. All of this assumes that there is a certain way of going about producing the desired outcomes that can be followed and adhered to. Both in principle and in fact there is such a way, although it is frequently stated to be unachievable and/or implausible: it consists of an intention to be truth-telling and the taking of a rigorous, fair, and objective approach to researching and reporting the news.

For Williams (2002), accuracy and sincerity are the core virtues of truth. Constative accuracy is the virtue of reporting how things are only when the report is the outcome of sufficient investigation—a sentiment expressed by public service journalists, who argue that objective reporting is the best method to ensure that all facts and issues are fairly considered, weighed up and scrutinized. Achieving constative accuracy in any investigation “lies in the skills and attitudes that resist the pleasure principle, in all its forms, from a gross need to believe the agreeable, to mere laziness in checking one’s investigations” (Williams, 2002). It is a “passion for getting it right” (Williams, 2002) and in relation to public service journalism, “getting it right” relies upon the public service journalist’s desire and ability to do so. The extent to which the public service journalist pursues accuracy is dependent upon what Williams refers to as “attitudes, desires and wishes, the spirit of his attempts, the care that he takes” and “the methods that the investigator uses” (Williams, 2002, p. 127); that is, the news journalist achieves accuracy through an effective investigation of contemporary events, which balances the desire for truthfulness with an ethical justification of the methods that are used. Interpretive sincerity, as part of truth-telling, is the virtue of communicating only how you take things to be (Blackburn, 2007). Sincerity, according to Williams, implies that people say what they believe to be true and is “centred on sustaining and developing relations with others that involve different kinds and degrees of trust.” (Williams, 2002, p. 121). At the very least this involves public service journalists expressing what they actually believe to be truthful in the news report. It is “trustworthiness in speech,” and by extension, in the written text or the online text. It is the disposition “to make sure that any assertion one makes expresses a genuine belief” (Williams, 2002, p. 91) that can be substantiated by verifiable evidence.

Accompanying truth-telling in public service journalism is a question of objectivity. Simply expressed, public service journalism is objective when it self-consciously adopts the professional method of objective and fair18 reporting which, when undertaken rigorously, meets certain professional procedural standards. These are standards which the public can legitimately regard as being aimed at an intention to discover the truth and which can also sensibly be regarded as trustworthy because they are motivated by an a concern for fairness and an “obligation not to deceive.”19 Such procedural standards should not then be discounted because of epistemological confusions or despairing claims with regard to how far from truth-telling modern news journalism has descended; nor from a view unwittingly supported by a belief in some academic quarters that objectivity is impossible,20 is one theoretical option amongst others,21 or is a form of delusional professional “myth.” Objectivity, in the context of public service journalism, is quite simply the application of professional standards which support the reasonable expectation that newsgathering and reporting are undertaken in accordance with some form of “methodological rigor.”22 For example, the objective aspects of newsgathering occur when all views and opinions that can be gathered are gathered, when all facts that can be known are accurately reported, and when their explanatory value is weighed or judged in an impartial way.23 This form of objectivity carries with it an interest in the truth (and not deception)24 and an attempt to apply a disciplined professional method where views and evidence are not misrepresented or suppressed because they do not suit an opinion already held by the reporter, or the news organization, or would upset their customers, possibly causing them to reject their news supplier.

Increasingly it is argued that the reality of publicly funded public service journalism is that it needs, or has been forced, to adapt or change in accordance with anti-democratic politics (Hutton, 2023) and digital technology (Viner, 2016).25 Hutton describes the threat to democracy through what he calls a “culture of truth denial,” while Viner contextualizes the challenges of digital technology with the question, “[D]oes the truth matter anymore?” This is not so much an epistemological question as a practical one concerning the way traditional conceptions of journalism, especially public service journalism that places investigative effort and truthfulness at its heart, are being undermined. Viner (2016) puts the matter so: “When a fact begins to resemble whatever you feel is true, it becomes very difficult for anyone to tell the difference between facts that are true and ‘facts’ that are not.” Accordingly, “when ‘facts don’t work,’” that is, when they carry no persuasive power to affect prior beliefs, and “voters don’t trust the media, [because] everyone believes in their own ‘truth,’” “the results . . . can be devastating” (Viner, 2016). Accordingly,

we are caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated; between the open platform of the web as its architects envisioned it and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.

The problem is not just a world of recycled false information believed in by gullible or innocent others, but of “echo chambers” where like-minded people only hear the views of like-minded people (Sunstein, 2007, 2009), where people never hear alternative views, where established facts and objective truths are simply denied and replaced by views designed to be approved by core followers. All of this has, for Viner (2016), meant that “many news organisations have steered themselves away from public-interest journalism and toward junk-food news, chasing page views in the vain hope of attracting clicks and advertising (or investment).”

Public 2: A Public of Consumers

Most media markets around the world are mixed in the sense that they consist of some element of either publicly funded or not-for-profit public service journalism that coexists alongside dominant, multinational, privately owned media conglomerates that supply news as well as other products and services. These media conglomerates usually argue that they try to balance some form of public service obligation (no matter how thin) with regard to their news services with their fundamental commercial imperatives. That is, the two—commerce and public interest—can cohabit in a pluralistic setting and serve the cause of media pluralism, maximizing the diversity of commentary and opinions to public and democratic advantage.26 It is the case that, in observing commercial imperatives combined with perceived opportunities for meeting them due to new technological developments and opportunities, that the circumstances that threaten public service journalism are being heightened. In other words, the argument that public service journalism is being undermined (and abandoned) in the face of a culture of truth denial (Hutton, 2023) and digital technological challenges (increasingly, AI) cannot be separated from the commercial imperatives that seek to dominate a mixed media market. The most important commercial imperative of all for media conglomerates (and which drives one of the basic ways to achieve the maximization of profits) is the view that the public should be regarded as a public of consumers with clearly delineated consumer rights and consumer freedoms. It is these consumer rights and freedoms that are paramount and provide the rationale for the pursuit of commercial imperatives. In short, it is the consumer and not the citizen who is sovereign and the “ethic of consumption”27 is her rule.28

The rationale for treating the public as consumers is not to diminish them but to adorn every consumer with certain unconditional rights and corresponding freedoms. The first right is freedom of choice; the second right is freedom of speech and with that freedom from censorship. On this view “speech is simply another commodity, to be chosen by consumers subject to the forces of supply and demand” (Sunstein, 2007, p. 216). Justifying these rights and freedoms is a matter of combining an intellectual mélange of neoliberal economics, carrying its attendant philosophical beliefs in personal autonomy and possessive individualism, with a libertarian distrust of most (if not all) forms of (media) regulation. This combination, coupled with First Amendment jurisprudence of the most fundamental kind, brings with it an expansionist view of tolerance whereby offensive views that have the net effect of diminishing a person’s civil standing (Waldron, 2012) are protected by the application of the First Amendment, and are not regarded as being slanderous or libelous (at either an individual or group level). This mix provides a carapace under which the consumer is protected from “interference.” In short, powerful intellectual arguments are used to defend market-based and commercially inspired news suppliers. It is here that such suppliers find one aspect of their public service justification, namely giving the consumers what they want. In the case of public service journalism, the consuming public are simply choosing what they want to know about based upon the following strong distinction: (a) the consumer, who resides in the commercial domain, is market-based, economically determined, individualistic, and regards news content in all forms as capable of being purchased and owned; (b) the citizen, who resides in the public domain, regards certain content as a social and civil asset which should be available to all, sees communication infrastructures as adding to the cultural fabric of collective identity and belonging, requires that certain civil functions are fulfilled by broadcasters, and believes that the public purse and not the personal purse should bear the cost of such a service.

At this point we return to the argument that public service journalism is not a commodity governed by commercial imperatives, but a merit good, and that consumers do not always choose what is best for them, nor do aggregated individuals want necessarily to produce desirable public outcomes. The question is, who is to adjudicate the claim and counterclaim as to (a) what the public is entitled to, (b) what the public want, and (c) what is in the public good and for public benefit? In the setting of the mixed market (i.e., where there is at least a notional commitment to the provision of public service journalism) there exists a variety of regulatory regimes, from strongly interventionist to decidedly passive, and attempts to document them simply end up in describing ideal types. The point here is that regulatory adjudication as a means of protecting/promoting public service journalism is not the complete answer: although where guided by public interest criteria, as say distinct from competition criteria (as the EU is),29 it is certainly an important part of the answer.

Rather, it is the case that the challenge of protecting and promoting public service journalism in the mixed market lies elsewhere. As Viner (2016) notes, “the challenge for journalism today is not simply technological innovation or the creation of new business models. It is to establish what role journalistic organizations still play in a public discourse that has become impossibly fragmented and radically destabilised.” If we disregard the exaggeration with regard to public discourse,30 her point is that a mixed media market should develop “a business model that serves and rewards media organizations that put the search for truth at the heart of everything—building an informed, active public that scrutinizes the powerful, not an ill-informed, reactionary gang that attacks the vulnerable. Traditional news values must be embraced and celebrated: reporting, verifying, gathering together eyewitness statements, making a serious attempt to discover what really happened” (Viner, 2016).31 In other words, public service journalism with its distinctive features, as outlined above, needs to be more than just publicly financed, and protected/promoted by regulation; it needs to have its marketplace where it can maintain a new form of commercial role that preserves and promotes its civil role: one which entails that the people it serves are not regarded as consumers but as citizens.

The question now is that if economic challenges facing public service journalism can be understood in terms of a clash between public service values and commercial imperatives and priorities, what happens to public service journalism if news organizations come to regard themselves as serving a set of political beliefs? And hence come to see their public as consisting of political allies and as partisans in a struggle against those who do not share their political outlook?

Public 3: A Public of Partisans

A passionate journalism, a patriotic journalism, a journalism of resistance, campaigning journalism, message journalism, and even crusading journalism are all regular features of the history of journalism, and in some cases they have served “their” cause whilst retaining their truth-telling role, or as much of it as was possible. Recently however, there has arisen the view in some news organizations that their audience consists of a public of partisans, and everyone not of their party is a member of an occupying army that must be resisted. Closely related to this position is the related view that truth-telling based on public service journalism precepts is less important than holding correct beliefs and/or not collaborating with the occupying enemy. In essence, the world consists of friends and foes. Accordingly, some news journalists on these partisan channels see their role as consisting of nothing other than the straightforward advocacy of a particular political outlook, or of supporting a particular politician. The American channel, Fox News, and the UK’s GB News are often cited as preeminent examples of a partisan news channel, though there are many others around the world: variously chauvinistic, populist, nationalist, or seeking to redress the perceived bias of the “Western Liberal” global media that dominates the modern news media ecology, all claiming to be serving their own tribe that is their selective public.

The emergence of these partisan channels has been put down to a variety of reasons, notably politics itself has become less consensual, politicians themselves have debased public discourse and the media reflects this, technology has facilitated the proliferation of opportunities for extreme views to be disseminated and regulators have failed to moderate what is said. The view taken by partisan channels is that politics and the public sphere are in an endless set of antagonistic relationships and, correspondingly, sides need to be taken. The net result of this is that “facts” are constantly disputed and substituted by “alternative facts,” or “our facts”32 and attempts at discursive rationality are deemed pointless.

Carl Schmitt (2007) who did much to show the inexorably antagonistic nature of politics, argued that partisanship can be seen as an aspect of political enmity that takes one of two forms: (a) reclaiming something lost or believed to have been stolen, typically land; and (b) undertaking to obliterate ideas and views held to be anathema to a way of life understood in highly particularistic terms. Transposing these two conceptions of enmity (which Schmitt calls “real” and “absolute”), it is possible to say that a partisan media consists of the following four criteria:

First, it regards the public sphere as a battleground.

Second, the battle is intensely political (specifically populist) being conceived of in terms of “real people,” “the common good,” “the unrepresented,” (or the “left behind” and the “forgotten”) versus dominant elites, pluralists, and liberal democrats.33

As Schmitt (2007, p. 90) observed: “in enmity a person who has lost his right seeks to regain it, in enmity he finds the meaning of his cause and the meaning of right when the framework of protection and obedience within which he formerly lived breaks up.”

Third, partisan channels encourage interactivity, involvement and, above all, the mobilization of their audiences to affirm their message and to protest against those perceived to be part of “the occupying army” across all forms of media.

Fourth, partisan news channels are usually tied to an organized party or some formal (usually corporate or charitable) source of funding.

Applying these four criteria, we see that partisan news is the antithesis of public service journalism, and, according to some, its greatest threat. Partisan news accuses public service journalism of being hypocritical for merely being an ideological extension of some self-serving dominant hegemony that values the status quo or values antithetical to the partisan, a charge that has more recently become conflated with the accusation that public service media is increasingly “woke” (Goodwin, 2023). To compensate for this bias against the partisan and to use the jargon of the American “alt right,” the media has to become “weaponized”34 in order to serve a populist politics replete with their own illiberal (or non-woke) ideas. Overall, a weaponized media feeds a partisan public “fake news,”35 conspiracy theories, and distortions (sometimes lies). At the same time trustworthiness is disconnected from truth telling, fairness, objectivity, and investigative rigor and is replaced by the endlessly recurring explicit commitments the news provider makes to representing its audience, their beliefs, and their values. The relationship between the news provider and the partisan public is adjudged to be symbiotic—mutually beneficial. Partisan news providers give succor to whomever they support by trying to use the news to confirm a person’s outlook or to channel and reinforce discontent in a certain direction. They do both by reinforcing or seeking to influence what Schutz and Luckmann (1973) call a person’s “natural attitude” and the way that they understand the world.36 It is nothing other than a totalizing approach to news where everything must conform to a specific ideology or worldview, and what does not is simply ignored (edited out); always working toward promoting a “single common good” and for a leader “whose will cannot err” (Müller, 2016, p. 101).

In serving their agenda, partisan news channels and the partisan public constantly evoke the sacrality of the First Amendment, their unconditional attachment to freedom of speech and expression, and the people’s right to know. The result of regarding the people as consisting of only two types, friends and foes, and politics and civil life based on the crude distinction “friend” or “foe,” is that a partisan public requires the proliferation of views which merely reinforce prejudice, since the like-minded ultimately only wish to speak and listen to the like-minded. This proliferation represents a sustained attempt to diminish the quality and scope of public discourse and to dispute the value of public service journalism (or as the alt right put it, “to attack the messenger”). The net result is a news ecology that is febrile.

Public Service Journalism as Virtuous Resistance

Thus far the description of public service journalism has focused on how it should be undertaken and the two great threats (commercial and political) that, if left unchallenged, will diminish it. Which leaves a rather obvious question unaddressed: specifically, what normative guidelines and values determine the actual content of public service journalism? That is, what principles of news selection circumscribe news selection? Harrison (2006, p. 101) after McQuail (2000) argues that

there is quite a high measure of agreement on the basic ideas of how the media in general should responsibly contribute to the working of democratic society. This agreement may be summarized, when applied to news, in the following way in that there should be: a free flow of accurate and diverse information

which is reliable and is made available to all citizens

who can use the information to challenge existing political, social, economic and cultural “truths”

without destroying the moral and social fabric of society

and that citizens can ultimately use their improved knowledge and understanding to establish a stronger sense of social coherence, mutual understanding and belonging to a community.

Expressed in this form the list represents a series of moral or normative aspirations on what the setting of news journalism should be, how it should report contemporary events and what the outcome of these reports should be.37 In short, the list represents the ideal news ecology or environment.

In an article for the Huffington Post (Grenoble, 2018), Cass Sunstein is cited to make the case that responsible news media should be aware of three problems arising from the growth of misinformation that can be overcome by ensuring that: “First, citizens should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance.” For Sunstein, such “serendipity is a good thing. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.” Being exposed to a range of ideas, perspectives and opinions that have not been deliberately searched for may in fact be annoying to people, but may also have an impact and perhaps even “change their lives in fundamental ways.” In an era of “fragmentation, polarization, and extremism,” echo chambers exacerbate views rather than challenge them. Sunstein’s second problem focuses on the idea that citizens should have “a wide range of common experiences” because “without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time in addressing social problems. People might see each other as strangers, foreigners, possibly even enemies. Common experiences, emphatically including the common experiences made possible by social media, provide a form of social glue. Societies need such things.”38 Third, it is important that citizens should be able to make distinctions “between truth and falsehood—and to know when democratic processes are being manipulated.” He goes on to say that “in democracies, of course, it is fair for people to disagree about what the truth is. But if people are knowingly spreading lies, and if nations are attempting to disrupt other nations, some process should be in place to enable citizens to have access to the truth.”

Ultimately, these suggestions are attempts to describe practical editorial guidelines that serve democratic outcomes via a form of trustworthiness.39 That is, news organizations are trusted with accurately, sincerely, and objectively reporting those events deemed to be newsworthy. Selecting something to be newsworthy and then reporting it accurately is a matter of editorial integrity. It is the exercise of freedom of expression responsibly and fairly undertaken. Only then can a public warrant of trustworthiness be secured. While this might sound somewhat high-minded, it needs to be made clear (if only in the name of economic realism) that the citizen and the public conceived of as consumers can, in fact, overlap.

Conceiving of the public as consisting of consumers does not undermine public service journalism in the way that conceiving of the public as consisting of partisans does. The former can and does provide the conditions of coexistence. Private sector news suppliers are not necessarily inimical to public service journalism, nor is it always regarded by the private sector as an expensive indulgence, indeed the marque “trustworthy” is showing itself to be a valuable and marketable commodity40 and the search for new business models of coexistence is ongoing. The latter, however, has be addressed for what it is—straightforwardly, an anathema to public service journalism’s values. It is not so because public service journalism necessarily comes with an attachment to progressive political values; indeed, public service journalism can equally be conservative. Rather, it is because public service journalism cannot lose sight of the value of trying to be truthful, basing comment and opinions on what is sincerely believed to be truthful and at the same time being accurate and homologous to the world. Only by the activity of winning public trust and by securing a public warrant can public service journalism claim its privileged status. As technology companies who provide news services are finding out, once trust is lost it is very difficult to regain it.41 This is not to deny the benefits that technology companies bring to news services, but as Viner (2016) reminds us, engagement with people as civic actors is to engage with them as a public of citizens, and this is at the heart of public service journalism and is the way in which it offers a form of virtuous resistance to the predatory circumstance of commercial and political power. Ultimately, then, public service journalism is a methodical way of undertaking journalism in accordance with the demands of its public, which is conceived of as primarily consisting of discursive and intelligent citizens who believe themselves to have a right to know.

Further Reading

  • Alexander, J. (2006). The civil sphere. Oxford University Press.
  • Alexander, J., Breese, E. B., & Luengo, M. (Eds.). (2016). The crisis of journalism reconsidered. Cambridge University Press.
  • Calhoun, C. (Ed.). (1993). Habermas and the public sphere. MIT Press.
  • Couldry, N., & Hepp, A. (2017). The mediated construction of reality. Polity Press.
  • Curran, James P. (2011). Media and democracy. Routledge.
  • Curran, J. P., & Seaton, J. (2009). Power without responsibility. Routledge.
  • Garton Ash, T. (2016). Free speech. Atlantic Books.
  • Grenoble, R. (2018, January 22). Facebook admits it’s probably not the best thing for democracy. Huffington Post.
  • Habermas, J. (2003). The structural transformation of the public sphere. Polity Press.
  • Harrison, J. (2006). News. Routledge.
  • Harrison, J. (2019). The civil power of the news. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (1995). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. Vintage Books.
  • Inglis, F. (2002). People’s witness The journalist in modern politics. Yale University Press.
  • Keane, J. (2013). Democracy and media decadence. Cambridge University Press.
  • McNair, B. (2012). Journalism and democracy: An evaluation of the political public sphere. Routledge.
  • O’Neill, O. (2002). A question of trust. Cambridge University Press.
  • Schudson, M. (1996). The power of news. Harvard University Press.
  • Schudson, M. (2009). Why democracies need an unlovable press. Polity Press.
  • Silverstone, R. (2007). Media and morality: On the rise of the mediapolis. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Sunstein, C. (2009). Going to extremes. Oxford University Press.
  • Waldron, J. (2012). The harm in hate speech. Harvard University Press.


  • Alexander, J., Breese, E. B., & Luengo, M. (2016). The crisis of journalism reconsidered. Cambridge University Press.
  • BBC Academy (2013). Truth and accuracy.
  • Bell, D. (1976). The cultural contradictions of capitalism. Heinemann.
  • Bentham, J. (1821). On the liberty of the press and public discussion. William Hone.
  • Bentham, J. (1990). Securities against misrule and other constitutional writings for Tripoli and Greece (P. Schofield, Ed.). Clarendon Press.
  • Bentham, J. (1790/1994). Of publicity. Public Culture, 6(3), 579–595.
  • Blackburn, S. (2007). Truth. Oxford University Press.
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  • 1. See Alexander et al. (2016, p. 21), who here also cite Schudson’s insight verbatim: journalism can perform its institutional role of watchdog even if nobody in the provinces is following the news. All that matters is that people in government believe they are following the news. If an inner circle of attentive citizens is watchful, this is sufficient to produce in the leaders a fear of public embarrassment, public controversy, legal prosecution, or fear of losing an election. (Schudson, 2010, pp. 95–106)

  • 2. See Milton (1644/1927), Areopagitica, “A speech for the liberty of the unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England,” and other prose works published by J. M. Dent.

  • 3. See Spinoza (1670/2012, pp. 250–259), Theological-political treatise, and Spinoza (1925/1991), Tractatus theologico-politicus. Gebhardt Edition.

  • 4. See Hume (1742), “Of the liberty of the press.”

  • 5. Blackstone (1979, pp. 150–153), Commentaries on the laws of England, writes that, “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state: but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public: to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.”

  • 6. Following the publication of the second part of his work The Rights Of Man, Tom Paine was issued with a writ for his arrest on May 21, 1792, for seditious libel. He fled to Paris and was subsequently tried in absentia on December 18, 1792. His defense was conducted by Thomas Erskine, who made a greatly admired speech defending the liberty of the press.

  • 7. Kant’s Principle of Publicity is to be found in “Towards Perpetual Peace” (Kant, 1795/1996, pp. 311–352). Kant writes that “All actions relating to the right of other human beings are wrong if their maxim is incompatible with publicity” (p. 347).

  • 8. James Madison (1791), Report on the Virginia Resolutions. On Madison’s changing views on the necessity of a Bill of Rights, see Labunski (2006), James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights.

  • 9. On Thomas Jefferson, his views on and relationship with the press, see Knudson (2006) Jefferson and the Press: Crucible of liberty.

  • 10. See for example: Jeremy Bentham (1821) On the Liberty of the Press and Public Discussion; Bentham (1990) Securities against Misrule and Other Constitutional Writings for Tripoli and Greece; and Bentham (1790/1994) “Of Publicity.”

  • 11. See Alexis de Tocqueville (1835/2012) Democracy in America (2 volumes).

  • 12. See John Stuart Mill (1859/2008) On Liberty and other Essays

  • 13. See Max Weber (1919/2004). The Vocation Lectures: “Science as a Vocation” “Politics as a Vocation.”

  • 14. See Walter Lippmann (1920) Liberty and the News

  • 15. Dewey (1927/1954, p. 167) puts the matter this way:

    There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it. Whatever obstructs and restricts publicity limits and distorts public opinion and checks and distorts thinking on social affairs. Without freedom of expression, not even a method of social inquiry can be developed. For tools can be evolved and perfected only in operation; in application to observing, reporting and organizing actual subject matter; and this application cannot occur save through free and systematic communication. (The Public and its Problems.)

  • 16. The phrase “Public Opinion Tribunal” is Bentham’s; by it he meant “ a fictional tribunal the existence of which is . . . feigned under the pressure of inevitable necessity for the purpose of discourse to designate the imaginary tribunal or judiciary by which the punishments and rewards of which the popular or moral sanction is composed are applied.” Such a public opinion tribunal had four functions: first, evidence-furnishing; second, a censorial function; third, it punished and rewarded government action; and fourth, it had a “melioration-suggestive function.” Overall, it was based on the idea that public opinion was capable of engaging critically with issues of public interest (see Schofield, 1989, p. 283). Note the “melioration-suggestive function” consists of the public opinion tribunal having the power to suggest to authority holders and policy makers improvements or corrections to courses of action.

  • 17. Tocqueville (1835/2012) uses the term “public sentiment,” arguing that newspapers must constantly tap into public sentiment, the quality of which he is optimistic about in Volume I and variously pessimistic about in Volume II of Democracy in America

  • 18. On fairness, see the 1949 United States Federal Communications Commissions “Fairness Doctrine,” which required broadcasters to discuss controversial issues by airing contrasting views, and also the BBC’s stated editorial intention of achieving due impartiality “in all its outputs” (Editorial Guidelines section 4.1).

  • 19. O’Neill (2002, p. 97) puts it this way “Obligations to reject deception are obligations for everyone: for individuals for government and institutions – including the media and journalists.”

  • 20. For example, Muñoz-Torres (2012, p. 566) states that: “(1) objectivity is not only an impossible ideal, but rather an ill-conceived question, based upon the mistaken premises of positivism; (2) the concept of objectivity has partly managed to replace a more fundamental one, that of truth, thus becoming confusing and fallacious.”

  • 21. For example, see C. Wien (2005).

  • 22. A point continuously reinforced by Lippmann (1920) and his view that democracy could only thrive where competing views had been subject to rigorous journalistic assessment by a commonly held method which maintained and proceeded according to standards of objectivity. As he famously argued in Liberty and the News, “When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.” (Lippmann, 1920, 10–11).

  • 23. For example, see BBC Academy (2013). This highlights the assertion that “BBC journalists need to not only get the objective, verifiable ‘facts’ right but accurately report the opinions expressed by those who they report. Senior editors talk about the daily challenge of ensuring every report and programme is accurate and truthful.”

  • 24. Williams (2002, p. 119) writes: “Deceit involves manipulation, specifically of people’s beliefs, and it may be part of using someone more generally.” On the same page, see his thoughts on the obligation not to deceive.

  • 25. It is worth pointing out that Kathleen Viner was editor-in-chief of The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. (a position she had held since June 2015) when she wrote this article, and her views, particularly regarding how she understands readers to be “civic actors,” are not at all idealistic but entirely practical. Indeed, by November 2017 The Guardian was making more money from reader revenue, including paid memberships and subscriptions, than advertising revenue (Davies, 2017).

  • 26. This argument on behalf of media pluralism is, of course, self-serving and disregards the fact that most companies have a fundamental desire to remove competition by either creating the conditions for cooperation between “rivals” or by becoming a monopoly supplier. In other words, pluralism is usually antithetical to the desire to dominate a market. Nevertheless, new media business models are evolving; see note 30.

  • 27. For Daniel Bell (1976), the spirit of capitalism had moved from the Protestant Ethic to having two antagonistic cultures, one dominated by the Ethic of Consumption, the other by the Ethic of Accumulation. It is the former that dominates and provides a rationale for both the media and the techno-media companies of today.

  • 28. I leave aside any discussion of how the consumer knows what it is they want and how those wants are actually formed. My point is that, however such wants are arrived at, organizations seek to maximize the number of consumers of their products, and when that product is a news service, they tend then to describe the consumer as having freedom (individual choice) in deciding what kind of news they want.

  • 29. The situation in the EU is that, in practice, single-market competition rules for the audiovisual sector superintend and outrank the somewhat hortatory reference to media pluralism and freedom of speech. See Pukallus and Harrison (2015, pp. 368–387).

  • 30. The term “public discourse” invites exaggeration since it implies that the public is overly rational. As such the way the public expresses itself is always better understood as “public sentiment” since this encompasses both the affective and rational composition of the public’s views.

  • 31. For example, by November 2017 The Guardian was making more money from reader revenue, including paid memberships and subscriptions, than advertising revenue (Davies, 2017), and by 2022 Peter Waterson, then the Guardian Media Editor, wrote that

    The Guardian’s parent company has recorded its strongest financial results since 2008, aided by more contributions from online readers and increased income from its international operations. Annual revenues at Guardian Media Group grew by 13% to £255.8m, its highest income since audiences shifted online and destroyed the traditional newspaper business. . . . The Guardian’s online readers now contribute more money to the Guardian than readers of its UK print newspapers. When digital advertising and other income is taken into account, more than two-thirds of Guardian Media Group’s total income now comes from its online operations.

  • 32. On January 22, 2017, during the NBC program Meet the Press, Ms. Kellyanne Conway (then Counsellor to President Trump) defended the president’s press secretary (at that time Mr. Sean Spicer) who had claimed that the number of people attending the inauguration of President Trump was much higher than had been generally reported. He illustrated this point with false figures. Conway said in Spicer’s defense that he was using “alternative facts.”

  • 33. See What Is Populism? (Müller, 2016, pp. 101–103).

  • 34. Under the heading “weaponization” what can be increasingly and clearly discerned is the emergence of a militaristic vocabulary describing the news media. For example “the blast radius” of news; giving a news channel “a weapons upgrade,” or, as Steve Bannon said upon his short-lived return to the Breitbart News Channel in 2017, “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons, . . . I built a f***ing machine at Breitbart. And now I’m about to go back, knowing what I know, and we’re about to rev that machine up. And rev it up we will do” (Wong, 2017).

  • 35. For a history of the term “fake news,” see Wendling (2018) and Soll (2016).

  • 36. For Schutz and Luckmann (1973), the “Natural Attitude” can be regarded as the acceptance by an individual that the world is (a) historically constituted and ordered in a certain way, and (b) socially and intersubjectively arranged in a certain way, and that both of these are routinely and typically taken for granted by individuals (singularly and collectively) in an unreflective (naturalistic) way.

  • 37. Haas and Steiner (2001) propose a list of questions (based on Frazer’s understanding of the public sphere) that could serve as a normative basis and as pragmatic guidelines for public journalism practice: (1) Should journalists encourage citizens to transcend inequalities among social groups, or should citizens be encouraged to attend to social inequalities? (2) Should journalists help create a single, unifying public sphere, or should the goal be to strengthen a public sphere composed of multiple discursive domains? (3) Should journalists maintain sharp distinctions between issues of public interest and matters of private concern, or should the public/private dichotomy be challenged? (4) Should journalists’ goal be to engage citizens in public opinion-formation, or should they also try to involve citizens in political decision-making?

  • 38. A similar point is made by Justin Lewis (2006) when he argues that “citizenship should be brought from the margins of news to its centre. This means implicating citizenship into the news’s mode of address, of going beyond the narrow narratives of current news values and addressing broad citizenship concerns.”

  • 39. Though for McNair (2006, 2012), such trust should be treated with the utmost caution. He is simultaneously optimistic about the depth and scope of political information in news outlets and the improving quality of political journalism in holding political power to account, but insists that critical scrutiny needs to be constantly maintained with regard to the evolution of the relationship between political power and the news media, since ultimately neither the politician nor the journalist can be trusted to guarantee democratic accountability.

  • 40. Rupert Murdoch (see Wong, 2018) argues that social networks should reward news publishers for adding “value and integrity” to their news services. His point was simply that trusted news publishers enhance the trustworthiness of social networks which in turn increases their commercial value. The idea is not new. In 2016 and from the opposite end of the political spectrum both the Media Reform Coalition and the National Union of Journalists suggested to U.K. politicians that Google and Facebook fund public service reporting in Britain. They proposed a 1% levy on the operations of both in order to pay for independent and non-profit journalism. See Greenslade (2016).

  • 41. The Edelman Trust Barometer (2017) found that only 24% of the U.K. population trusts the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram when looking for news and information, whilst 61% trusted “traditional media.” Sixty-four percent of respondents believed social media companies were not sufficiently regulated.