Journalism’s “social contract” refers to journalism’s role in democracy, primarily its obligations to inform the public and scrutinize government. The notion of a contract, however, entails the exchange of rights and obligations for mutual benefit. In this exchange, journalism enjoys the rights to free expression and publication, and it is obliged to cover the world fairly and accurately, providing citizens with the information they need to perform their roles as citizens. The notion of a social contract of the press is primarily rooted in liberal philosophy, though there is also a moral side to the contract that can be traced to republican theories of democracy. The question of reciprocity is central to the research on journalism’s social contract, primarily on the relationship between journalists and audiences, an area of research that is gaining traction as networked public spheres grow in importance as new venues of audience participation. Although the notion of a social contract is most visible in discussions of journalism ethics and professional practice, democratic media models also assume that journalism’s social contract constitutes an important conduit of democratic processes. As such, journalism’s social contract largely describes normative dimensions of journalism’s role in society, primarily embedded in notions related to the quality of information and an informed citizenry.
Christopher J. Gilbert
The editorial cartoon is a touchstone for matters of free expression in the journalistic tradition. Since their early inception in the politically charged engravings of 18th-century pictorial satirist William Hogarth to the present day, editorial cartoons have shone forth as signifiers of comic irreverence and mockery in the face of governmental authority and in the more generalized cultural politics of the times. In democratic nations they have been cast as a pillar of the fourth estate. Nevertheless, they—and the cartoonists, critics, commentators, and citizens who champion them—have also long stood out as relatively easy targets for concerns about where the lines of issues such libel, slander, defamation, and especially blasphemy should be drawn. This goes for Western-style democracies as well as authoritarian regimes. In other words, the editorial cartoon stands at a critical nexus of meaning and public judgment. At issue from one vantage is what it means to promote the disclosure of folly as the foolish conduct of public officials and the stupidity of institutions that are thereby worthy as objects of ridicule. From another vantage, there is the matter of what it is to deplore the comicality in journalistic opinion-making that goes too far. To approach editorial cartoons from the standpoints of free expression and press freedoms is to verge on conflicting values of civil liberty in and around the so-called right to offend. This was true in the age of Hogarth. It was true in the days of famed French printmaker and caricaturist Honoré Daumier, who was imprisoned for six months from 1832 until 1833 after portraying Emperor Louis-Philippe in the L Caricature. It is also particularly true today in a global media age wherein editorial cartoons, whether or not they are syndicated by official newspapers, can traverse geographic and other boundaries with relative ease and efficiency. Furthermore, the 21st century has seen numerous cartoon controversies vis-à-vis what many commentators have referred to as “cartoon wars,” leading to everything from high-profile firings of cartoonists (including in the United States) through bans and imprisonments of artists in Middle Eastern countries to the 2015 shootings of cartoon artists at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Indeed, if the threshold of the free press is the killed cartoon, the limit point of the freedom of expression is the killed cartoonist. Hence the importance of looking beyond any one editorial cartoon or cartoonist in order to contemplate the comic spirit in certain historical moments so as to discover the social, political, and cultural standards of judgment being applied to the carte blanche of journalism and the comic license of those using graphic caricatures to freely editorialize their takes on the world—or not.
Helle Sjøvaag and Jonas Ohlsson
Media ownership is of interest to research on journalism due to the assumption that ownership can have an impact of the contents and practices of journalism. Ownership of news media take many forms: state ownership, family ownership, party ownership, trust ownership, public or corporate ownership. The main concern with ownership in journalism scholarship is market concentration and monopolization, and the undue effects this may have on media diversity, public opinion formation, democracy and journalistic autonomy. Throughout the research, ownership motivations are assumed to lie with the potential financial and political benefits of owning journalistic media. Benevolence is seldom assumed, as the problematic aspects of ownership are treated both from the management side of the research, and from the critical political economy perspective. News and journalism are largely understood as public goods, the quality of which is often seen as threatened by commercialism and market realities, under the economic aims of owners. However, the many forms and shapes that ownership of news media assume have different impacts on the competition between media outlets, the organization of editorial production, journalistic and professional cultures, and the intensity of corporate and profit maximizing philosophies that journalists work under. Ownership, however, assumes different forms in different media systems.
The public sphere is a social entity with an important function and powerful effects in modern, democratic societies. The idea of the public sphere rests on the conviction that people living in a society, regardless of their age, gender, religion, economic or social status, professional position, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, or nationality, should be able to publicly express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions about issues that matter to them and impact their lives. This expression should be as free as possible in form and function and should operate through means and methods that people themselves deem suitable, so not via channels that are official or state-sanctioned. The classic Habermasian idea of the public sphere is that it is used by private individuals (not officials or politicians) who should be able to converse with each other in a public-spirited way to develop opinions that impact state or public-body decisions and policies. Also contained within this classic idea is the conviction that public sphere conversations should be rational (i.e., logical, evidence-based, and properly motivated and argued using an acceptable set of rhetorical devices) in order to convince others of the usefulness of a position, statement, or opinion. In commonsensical, political, and journalistic understandings, the public sphere is a critical component of a democracy that enables ordinary citizens to act as interlocutors to those who hold power and thereby hold them to account. As such it is one of the elements whereby democracy as a system is able to claim legitimacy as the “rule of the people.” Journalism’s imbrication in the social imaginary of the public sphere dates back to 17th- and 18th-century Europe when venues like coffee houses, clubs, and private homes, and media like newspapers and newsletters were being used by a mixture of gentry, nobility, and an emerging middle class of traders and merchants and other educated thinkers to disseminate information and express ideas. The conviction that journalism was the key vehicle for the conveyance of information and ideas of public import was then imbedded in the foundations of the practice of modern journalism and in the form exported from Western Europe to the rest of the world. Journalism’s role as a key institution within and vehicle of the public sphere was thus born. Allied to this was the conviction that journalism, via this public sphere role and working on behalf of the public interest (roughly understood as the consensus of opinions formed in the public sphere), should hold political, social, and economic powers to account. Journalists are therefore understood to be crucial proxies for the millions of people in a democracy who cannot easily wield on their own the collective voices that journalism with its institutional bases can produce.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Congress, with allies in the news media, created legislation that came to be known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It was designed to help hold the federal executive accountable to the public. It became law in 1966. Its significance can be understood in several contexts: (1) in connection with a special relationship of journalists to the operation of the FOIA; (2) in terms of arguments that transparency in government is necessary for citizens’ informed participation in democracy and that, on the other side, there are strong democratic arguments that transparency should be limited in the pursuit of other legitimate values, some of them recognized in the language of the FOIA itself that government agencies may deny a citizen's request for information on the grounds that honoring the request could endanger national security, personal privacy, the integrity of internal government deliberations, or other significant objectives; and (3) that freedom of information law are one institution within a wider web of institutions and practices dedicated to holding government accountable. In this regard, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act can also be seen in a broad context of a cultural shift toward “openness” and a political shift toward what has been called a “monitory” model of democracy.