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date: 22 January 2020

Journalism’s Social Contract

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: journalism, social contract, democracy, citizens, ethics, reciprocity, professionalism, journalism studies

Journalism’s Role in Democracy

Journalism’s social contract describes the role of journalism in society to oversee power and to contribute to democracy and the good of society. It also describes the responsibility of journalism to render citizens capable of democratic participation. The purpose of journalism here is to serve as a check on the powerful on behalf of the citizenry. As such, journalism’s social contract is closely tied to journalism’s role in democracy. The aims and the means by which journalism performs this role must be commensurable with good performance and professional ethics, and in line with the freedoms and responsibilities the press assumes in a liberal democracy. To that end, journalism’s social contract is born from liberal democratic theory, anchored both in republican notions of the common good, involving positive rights, and in liberal freedoms concerning property rights and expression, involving negative rights. As in any contract, the concept describes the exchange of rights and obligations, here between journalism and the state and between journalism and the citizenry, involving reciprocity.

In this article, the origins and foundations of journalism’s social contract are explained, its expressions are revised through a review of the literature, and its problematic relationship with the public is discussed.


The notion of a journalistic social contract is mobilized liberally in the research on journalism. Few scholars, however, make the effort to explain exactly what the notion entails. Journalism’s social contract is one of those taken-for-granted concepts that assumes an immediate understanding, and even agreement, in the field. Indeed, it largely refers to a uniform meaning. Journalism’s social contract is predominantly used to explain journalism’s role in democracy and the ethics with which this role is performed. It presupposes professional journalism and an informed citizenry. As such, the concept is overwhelmingly tied to the journalism practiced in liberal democratic societies, primarily mobilized in normative and theoretical journalism research in a Western—that is, a U.S. and Anglo-European—context (Curran, 2005; Himelboim & Limor, 2010; Ward, 2005). Referred to mainly as a “contract” (e.g., Strömbäck, 2005), and at other times as a “mission” (Entman, 2005, p. 62; Schudson, 2008) or a “covenant” (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001), journalism’s social contract describes journalism’s responsibility (McQuail, 2003, p. 7) to democracy, mainly in providing citizens with the information they need to scrutinize and debate the performance of elected officials (Schudson, 2008, p. 15; Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm, 1956, pp. 2–5). Here, “The point of the press is to keep a watch on those in positions of power over us, in order to report what is actually happening and being done in our name” (Kieran, 1998, p. 26). As Strömbäck (2005, p. 332) explains it:

[Journalists] fulfil their part of the social contract by providing citizens with the information they need in order to be free and self-governing, the government with the information it needs in order to make decisions in the common interest sensitive to public sentiments, an arena for public discussion, and by acting as a watchdog against abuse of power in politics and other parts of society.

The ethical and professional-ideological aspects of journalism are the most common lenses through which the social contract is reviewed in the research. Ideals and ethics are linked to normative aspects of correct practice (Kieran, 1998), and the aim of such practice is linked to democracy (McQuail, 2003; Strömbäck, 2005). Explanations for the pervasiveness of the contractual ideal are in turn linked to processes of professionalization (Ettema & Glasser, 1998; Sjøvaag, 2010).

In the context of professional ideology, journalism’s social contract serves as a defense of journalism’s powers in society. The agenda-setting function of the press, and the power to include and exclude voices in the debate, reflects journalism’s role in informing citizens and overseeing political institutions. The privilege that this entails, and the potential consequences for private citizens and elected officials that this power holds, requires a certain level of responsibility in the execution of the task. The social contract ideal promises that this role will be performed according to professionally agreed rules of conduct, established practices, and standardized ethics, and in accordance with the democratic ideals of representation, deliberation, and freedom of expression. Essentially, this ideal expresses the notion that journalism should benefit the people, not just increase the earnings of owners and investors.

In this article, the historical and theoretical foundations of journalism’s social contract are explained, followed by a review of the literature on the various expressions contractual theory assume in journalism research—in journalism’s ethics, its relationship to audiences, its professional practices, and its relationship to democracy.

Historical Foundations

The idea that journalism is normatively committed to political reporting to inform the citizenry is, according to Schudson and Tiff (2005, p. 18), “no older than contemporary democracies, a history of roughly two centuries.” Nevertheless, assert Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001, p. 20), “the concept of creating sovereignty has run through every major statement and argument about the press for centuries, not only from journalists but from the revolutionaries who fought for democratic principles, both in America and in virtually every developing democracy since.” Hence, there are common roots to the development of democracy and journalism. The base of these roots is, as noted by Siebert et al. (1956, p. 40), 17th- and 18th-century liberalism. As Skogerbø (1998, p. 63) explains,

The struggle for the right to express and defend divergent views was the centre of the opposition against absolutist and arbitrary rule that gradually rose in the European countries and the USA from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries onwards. The long period from the mid-seventeenth to the end of the nineteenth century, described as the rise of modernity by sociologists and cultural theorists, and as the age of enlightenment by philosophers and historians, is where we find the most articulate defences for the principle of free expression.

Liberal democratic theory establishes rational discourse and access to diverse information as fundamental for rational political decision-making, particularly drawn from the writings of John Milton (1644) and John Stuart Mill (1860). From these philosophies, principles of tolerance and acceptance of the adversary underscore principles of fairness and justice, while publicity serves as a prerequisite for representative, democratic government. Freedom of expression in turn implies freedom of publication, as the political relevance of speech is reliant on free means of publication. To that extent, freedom of the press follows from freedom of expression, with institutional guarantees that the press is free to publish without interference from the state (Skogerbø, 1998, pp. 78–79).

In the U.S. context, the social contract metaphor was firmly established as an aspect of journalism ethics during the Hutchins Commission debates on media regulation in the 1940s (Pickard, 2010). The social responsibility doctrine that emerged from these debates imposed on the media “an obligation to be socially responsible, to see that all sides are fairly represented and that the public has enough information to decide” (Siebert et al., 1956, p. 5). Moreover, as Pickard (2010) has shown, the outcome of these processes came to designate the marketplace as the primary realm of media self-regulation, leaving the government out of process of regulating the media in any sense, “elevating economic motives over social imperatives” (p. 176). As such, the notion that journalism is in a contractual relationship with society has roots in the development of journalism as a profession, expressed in institutionalized norms of self-regulation and predominantly liberal in orientation.

In the process of journalism’s professionalization, the contract therefore serves as an emancipatory gesture, moving contractual rights and obligations from the press as an institution to journalists as members of a profession, increasing both the independence and power of the journalist (Hallin, 1992). While the route to professional power and independence presents differently in different national contexts (cf. Hallin & Mancini, 2004), particularly concerning the relationship between the press and the state in various governmental systems—assuming obligations that were initially designated mainly to the publicist level establishes the journalist as an agent of democracy, embedding the public service notion that is so central to professionalism into journalistic practice (e.g., Wilensky 1964).

Theoretical Foundations

Journalism’s social contract describes the exchange of rights and obligations between journalism and society, emphasizing the reciprocity of the exchange and their mutual dependence in democracy. Journalism acts on behalf of the people, overseeing government according to the essential principles of liberal democracy: sovereignty, balance of power, and the rule of law. The theoretical foundations of journalism’s social contract can therefore be traced to the philosophical strand of contract theory and to the liberal and republican traditions that form the basis of liberal democracy (Elliott, 2004; Sjøvaag, 2010). To that end, the social contract theory of John Locke (1689) is often mobilized in contractarian research on the role of journalism and the news media in society (cf. Holmes, 1990; Kieran, 1998; O’Neill, 1990; Siebert et al., 1956; Sjøvaag, 2010; Strömbäck, 2005). The central tenet here is that citizens need insight into the workings of governments to be able to evaluate the administration of power on their behalf and to exercise their will as citizens.

In essence, therefore, the social contract of the press refers to the political social contract—the relationship between the citizen and the state developed in political philosophy. In the political social contract, citizenship entails the right to protection by the state, and this protection in turn requires law-abiding behavior on the part of citizens. The state has the exclusive right to the sanctioned use of force—either through the judicial system or the military system—essentially meaning that the state can withdraw the freedom of citizens who fail to uphold their obligations in the contract. The state must administer this power justly and fairly, not abusing its rights by unduly restricting the freedom of its subjects.

The state rules by the grace of the people, who have the right to remove rulers deemed to use their powers unjustly. Hence, there is a balance of rights and obligations between citizens and the state in the political social contract. Both parties have sanctioning powers should the other party fail to meet its obligations. For these sanctioning powers to work, however, citizens and governments alike need fair, factual information. Citizens need to know what their governments are up to, how their taxes are spent, and how state power is administered. Governments need information about the effects of legislation, and they need access to public opinion. This kind of reciprocal oversight is difficult to obtain given the size and complexity of modern societies. Without journalism, the information necessary for assessing the performance of the state is not attainable for the average individual. Neither is access to the opinions of others. Journalism’s social contract is therefore a metaphor for the political role of the press. As such, the contract metaphor is a borrowed discourse, one whose ideal content can be traced to classic contract theory, which conceptualizes the relationship between the citizen and the state in moral and political terms (Sjøvaag, 2010).

Contract Theories

Social contract theories in political philosophy engage in questions regarding the basic components of the citizen-state relationship. How do we become citizens? Why must laws be followed? How can laws be just and fair? In short—what makes state power legitimate? These were the questions asked by the early contract theorists, among whom John Locke (1689), John Stuart Mill (1860), Thomas Hobbes (1651), and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1762) are central thinkers. For these philosophers, questions about individual freedom, the rule of law, rights to private ownership, religion, and freedom of expression were central. Contract theoretical approaches tend to distinguish between liberal and republican traditions. Both are major directions in democratic theory, and both are concerned with the legitimacy of the state. Liberal philosophy takes the individual as its vantage point; republican philosophy assumes community as its starting point (Held, 2006). What separates the two is the relationship between personal freedom and responsibility for the common good. As such, the two directions offer differing accounts of individual rights and obligations in the contract.

Habermas (1994) outlines the difference between the two directions in his article “Three Normative Models of Democracy.” In liberalism, the formation of political will is the aggregation of private interests against a governing system that administers political power in the direction of the aggregated will of the people. Democratic processes are compromises between competing interests. The role of the citizen is defined according to the negative rights of individuals in relation to the state and others. Negative rights entail state protection as long as private pursuits stay within the law and as long as the private exercise of rights and freedoms does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of others. Political processes are results of competition between strategic actors trying to obtain positions of power, the success of which is reflected in votes—expressions of individual preferences as in a marketplace.

Republicanism, on the other hand, sees political processes as the expression of solidarity, where citizens are aware that they depend on each other for a free and equal society. Consensus is more important than private interests, and citizens are defined according to positive rights, primarily the right to participation and communication. The state is legitimized by the guarantee of citizen participation in policy formation toward the common good. Political processes are dialogues, or negotiations over values, toward a common understanding. Rationality and autonomy are vital to political will-formation in both directions, but Habermas stresses communication, and the conditions for participation and debate as the legitimator of political will-formation, as republicanism’s asset. The problem with the republican model, as Habermas sees it, is that democratic processes are vulnerable to the faithfulness of the public toward the common good, and a commitment to reach agreement.

Habermas therefore proposes a third model, a discourse theoretical interpretation of democratic processes in which will-formation is legitimized not by agreement but by the communicative conditions that allow the best arguments to win in various forms of deliberation and debate. Here, informal political will-formation generates influence, which transfers to communicative power through the political channels of election, which in turn transforms into administrative or state power through legislation. The state executes the decisions of the community, and the communicative structures of the public sphere engender the network of sensors that registers social problems and generates influential opinions, or politics.

The liberal and republican traditions, as well as Habermas’s own theory of deliberative democracy, are models that help explain the exchange of rights and obligations in the social contract that shed light on the reciprocity of journalism’s social contract. In journalism’s social contract, the press sees itself as a third party—the intermediator that oversees the effects of legislation and communicates the concerns of citizens to the state. Relationships here are also reciprocal, expressed in journalistic ideology. Journalism is obligated to the state by its democratic function, and in turn, the state is obligated to journalism by ensuring its basic rights, such as freedom of expression and securing the communication infrastructure. Journalism is also obligated to the public—to give them the information they need to make informed decisions about political matters.

It is in the public’s obligation to journalism that problems arise. There is an implied expectation in journalism that audiences react politically to reports in the press when such reactions are warranted (Sjøvaag, 2010; Strömbäck, 2005). However, journalism has no sanctioning power toward the public should they fail to uphold their obligations in the contract. All other contractual relationships come with sanctioning powers. The state can sanction the press through regulations. The press can sanction the state through its publication powers. The public can sanction journalism that fails to report social problems, primarily by not buying its products (McQuail, 2003, p. 217), but journalism has no way of sanctioning audiences that fail to react to reports in the press. Short of turning to advocacy and subjectivity, the relationship between the press and the public is unbalanced in terms of contractual obligations (Sjøvaag, 2010). This is why the question of journalism’s obligations to the citizenry is so contested—because the reciprocal aspect in the journalism–audience relationship is unbalanced.

Journalism Ethics

The journalistic social contract is embedded in what Ward (2009) terms the proactive and restraining ethics of professional journalism. According to proactive ethics, journalists not only have the freedom to report, they also have a duty to publish information that is in the public interest. Restraining ethics state that this reporting should be done in a responsible manner. Hence, the role of the Fourth Estate requires a normative conception of “good journalism” (Kieran, 1998, p. 26).

In Ward’s (2005) contractual approach to a global journalism ethics, social contracts are agreements where parties “abide by a set of rules for their mutual benefit” (p. 7). The question that Ward addresses in this context is what journalists implicitly or explicitly promise the public and what the public can expect from its journalists. While interpretations of the contract may vary between societies, says Ward, “in all contracts the public grants (or guarantees) certain freedoms and privileges to the press on the expectation that journalists will act responsibly, fulfil a range of functions, and provide benefits” (p. 8). Here, the contract implies a special role for journalism, which entails “duties in the form of principles and standards” (p. 8). What the public can expect in this context is that journalism will, as objectively as possible, disseminate and analyze “the most important information and views for the self-governing polity” (p. 9). Ward’s global journalism ethics thus expresses “a fair moral framework” (p. 9), articulating the central features of journalism’s social contract, including credibility and reliability, impact and allegiance, and professional responsibility and humanity, expressing fundamental public expectations of journalism.

Journalism and Its Audiences

The question of reciprocity is fundamental to journalism’s relationship with the public. Whereas Denis McQuail (2003) asserts that the audience is, first and foremost, an abstraction rather than an actor in the contract, he also claims that “the audience plays the most complex as well as the most important part of all the external partners to media activities” (p. 217). And while Strömbäck (2005, p. 333) asserts that journalism is under some form of moral obligation to democracy, he also acknowledges, as McQuail does, the contested nature of what this obligation might entail.

To that extent, Lewis, Holton, and Coddington (2014) call for a more reciprocal journalism. As exchanges between journalists and audiences increasingly take place in networked environments, journalists should orient themselves toward what audiences might expect from journalism and, in turn, what audiences can offer journalism. Because reciprocity describes an exchange between actors for their mutual benefit, the authors assert that reciprocity entails an unrealized potential—as considerations for the needs and concerns of citizens can help sustain journalists “as community-builders who can forge connections with and among community members by establishing patterns of reciprocal exchange” (p. 236). Reciprocity in a digital journalism context may therefore, according to Lewis et al. help to increase social trust, expand connectedness in communities, and build social capital.

The call launched by Lewis and colleagues is founded on the realization that journalism has been rather slow to engage with audiences on digital platforms. Hence, though audience expectations may be assumed to be fairly well established, reciprocity is also a question of boundary work (Gieryn, 1983), as the work of Groshek and Tandoc (2017) has shown. Here, reciprocity is conceptualized as the extent to which journalists welcome, include, and respond to audience input. Social-media platforms may be assumed to open journalism up to more audience interaction. Nevertheless, Groshek and Tandoc’s network analysis of gatekeeping on Twitter during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in the United States in 2014, shows that journalists were largely passive in terms of following and retweeting others on the social-media platform, concluding that legacy journalists are slow to assume reciprocity on social media. Instead of turning toward a reciprocal relationship with networked audiences, journalism seems to fortify—maintaining boundaries between what counts as journalism, and who performs journalistic work.

Karlsson, Clerwall, and Nord (2017) investigated just what these audience expectations entail in questions regarding transparency, particularly in terms of errors and corrections in journalism. Here, audiences are seen as stakeholders, whose wants and needs affect the relationship between audiences and journalists. Because contracts are characterized by consent, they involve mutual expectations. Because they are entered into in a social and historical context, expectations will vary across time and space. Although the authors found that audiences expect journalism to provide accurate news, they also conclude that participation, seen from the audience side, could weaken the social contract (see also Eldridge & Steel, 2016). The authors assert, “Citizens are conservative in their expectations of what journalism should provide” (p. 162), thus contributing to bring nuance just how reciprocal audiences expect journalism to be.

In any case, the nature of networked media continues to pose challenges for the reciprocity of journalism–audience relationships. Ananny and Kreiss (2011) investigates this issue in the context of U.S. copyright law. Since journalism’s failing business model presents a threat of market failure, the authors question to what extent voluntarism and collaboration will be enough to ensure citizens’ engagement and participation. Quality of information in these public spheres should be characterized by transparency, accountability, dialogue, reliability, and collaboration. Because these are conditions that the state must actively foster, the authors argue for a system of public subsidy that can ensure inclusive debate and a diversity of voices in the public spheres. To that extent, reciprocity in the journalism–audience relationship is also conditioned by external factors, such as state legislation, technological infrastructure, communication cultures, and legal boundaries.

The extent to which audiences are contractually bound by reciprocal obligations to expose themselves to useful information and respond publically to this information (Barger & Barney, 2004) remains a root problem. While researchers are actively searching for instances of audience–journalist reciprocity, it remains clear that a gap exists between the potentials and realities for real exchanges. Digital journalism has the tools and means to quantitatively map the level of audience engagement their publications illicit. Whether engagement beyond clicks, likes, and shares is something that journalism expects, however, remains in question.

Journalism Practice

The idea that professions have an “implicit” contract with society is derived from Parsons (1951), describing the need for professions to balance self-interest with collective interest. A social contract in this regard is thus a functionalist account of the contract between the professional and society. It seeks to describe the rights that specialized professionals hold to status, material assets, and autonomy in exchange for performing socially necessary, responsible, and risky work (Aldridge & Evetts, 2003).

Journalism’s social contract is therefore often anchored in what journalists do in practice. In McQuail’s (2003) treatment of media accountability, the contractual responsibilities of journalism are described as self-imposed and nonbinding—ideals that are largely traceable to the ethical frameworks of journalism and to the editorial mission statements of the press (Eide, 2014; Ward, 2009). The social contract therefore explains journalists’ duties to the public, granting certain freedoms to journalism with the expectation that journalism performs a range of socially beneficial functions responsibly (Murphy, Ward, & Donvan, 2006). With this freedom comes the responsibility to report the world truthfully, openly, ethically honestly, and reliably (Merrill, 1997), and to provide audiences with accurate and balanced information and a forum for debate (Klaidman & Beauchamp, 1987). As Ward (2009, p. 298) explains, the freedom to report is exchanged for responsible practice and a focus on important public issues. To that extent, says McQuail (2003, p. 298), “The media can legitimately be held to account for the use they make of their power of publication.” The contract therefore “ought to supply us with the basic regulative ideals to which good journalistic practice ought to adhere” (Kieran, 1998, p. 43). The ethical practice of journalism is thus a result of journalism’s contractual foundation, says Craft (2017)—in return for freedom, journalism is obliged to report ethically, truth-telling being central to journalism’s contract with the public. The freedom of the press thus entails the positive rights of journalism within the contract, while the restrictive, prohibitory aspects of news coverage, the laws and regulations that enable and restrict journalism, entails its negative rights (Belsey & Chadwick, 1995).

As such, social contracts can be empirically examined, in the legal frameworks that journalists work under (e.g., Tambini, 2013), in journalists’ codes of ethics (e.g., Himelboim & Limor, 2010), and in journalistic practice (e.g., Groshek & Tandoc, 2017). An expression of this contract was noted by Ettema and Glasser (1998) in their analysis of the logics of American investigative journalism. Here, the journalistic reporting of ethical, professional, or procedural violations of the public expectation of the administration of power articulates a common-ground moral order. The job of the reporter is thus to show that “the actions of alleged transgressors are in fact transgressions” (p. 62). Although reporters stop short of explicit moral judgement, they do locate, select, and interpret the moral standards that people then can use to judge the behavior of alleged transgressors. As such, say Ettema and Glasser (1998, p. 81), “news judgements depend upon a historically given moral order [as much as] news judgements have implications for the future of that order.” To the extent that the authors also found that journalists vigorously stressed the important role of community participation in this process, the reciprocity in journalistic professionalism is revealed—expectations of audience reactions to reports in the press as expressions of reciprocity.

Journalism and Democracy

In the reciprocal context of journalism’s social contract, the state is wholly reliant on information to govern society fairly. Moreover, say Barger and Barney (2004, p. 195), “The democratic ideal depends on an active and educated citizenry.” This concept is fundamental to social contract philosophers in considering the obligations of the state in relation to citizens. Here, information is seen as beneficial in mitigating mistakes and public misgivings. Hume assumed that a free press strengthened government, primarily by alerting lawmakers to “murmurs or secret discontents” that could be addressed before they became unmanageable. Kant asserted that rulers need access to public opinion to be able to rectify the unintended consequences of legislation. Milton argued that governments need a free press to be able to correct their own mistakes. Locke also argued that legislators who are able to hear all sides in political matters are more likely to make good decisions (Holmes, 1990, pp. 29–30).

Hence, free and open debate acknowledges that publicity encourages learning and that collective decisions are likely to be better informed (Holmes, 1990, p. 32). As Holmes explains, “If policies are set publicly and public criticism is encouraged, a government can avoid self-contradictory legislation, nip crisis in the bud, and remedy its own blunders” (p. 29). The metaphor of the marketplace of ideas thus describes how an independent press can bring ideas to public attention, incentivize new ideas to develop among the public, and improve ideas through a process of mutual criticism. While these liberal theories presuppose an absence of state censorship (Curran & Seaton, 1991, p. 277), Rousseau’s republican contract theory also argues that a freely formed public opinion sustains the moral standing on which government institutions are built (Schmul & Picard, 2005, p. 142). As such, there is both a moral and rational imperative to sustain democracy through informed public debate facilitated by the press.

Schudson (2008) thus remarks that the function of the press in a democracy should be understood from the premise that people “will rule more adequately if they are well informed by the press about public affairs” (p. 6). The press is, as such, a necessary condition for an informed and critical citizenship (O’Neill, 1990, p. 21). To that end, Strömbäck (2005) notes that democracy is the only form of government that can provide the freedom and independence that journalism needs to be able to serve the public. While democracy needs information and public discussion to sustain itself, states fulfill their part in the contract by protecting press freedoms. Essentially, then, the basic function of the press is to constitute a “check on government” (Siebert et al., 1956, p. 3). But more than that, journalism is expected to contribute to democratic political processes on a larger scale. Journalism represents an “essential intermediary” between citizens and the state (Curran, 2005; McQuail, 2003). Democratic models therefore tend to expect the media to provide a forum for discussion, and to fuel that discussion with factually correct information (Strömbäck, 2005, p. 341). In terms of journalism’s obligations to the state, the media system as a whole provides multiple links between citizens and civil society, on the one hand, and state institutions and political parties, on the other (Curran, 2005, p. 122).

The process of democracy itself depends on several conditions that in turn depend on the media, including an informed electorate, public opinion, and active participation on the part of the citizenry (McQuail, 2003, p. 6). As Curran and Seaton (1991) express it, “The press is thus the agency through which private citizens are reconstituted as a public body exercising informal supervision of the state” (p. 278). The social contract therefore entails an expectation on the part of governments that journalists and citizens cooperate in the interest of sustaining the public welfare (McQuail, 2003, p. 47). Here, says Curran (2005), “The media is viewed as an autonomous space, detached from society, where ideas battle for supremacy on the basis of merit, and where a reason-based consensus emerges that guides the public direction of society” (p. 126). The journalist thus becomes the “dramaturgical agent in public communication” (Kunelius, 2009, p. 343), a “facilitator” engaging the public in debate (Barger & Barney, 2004).

These inherently liberal theories of the role of journalism democracy have been criticized for their media centricity and for the optimistic view of policy processes (Curran & Seaton, 1991). McQuail (2003) also notes that attempts to describe a coherent media system fail to acknowledge the heterogeneity of media systems, arguing that there is no such thing as a generally agreed or accepted “social purpose” for the media. From this, says McQuail, we should “not expect to discover any definitive or unanimous specification of media rights and obligations” (p. 46), as these are both time specific and subject to circumstances. To that effect, contractarianism in journalism scholarship is criticized for being too focused on the mainstream media and its myopic, epistemic, and atomistic perspective on the world (Pech & Leibel, 2006).

Marvin and Meyer (2005, p. 409) have noted, however, that journalism cannot be expected to assume the sole responsibility for the information environment. Journalism, in effect, needs other social institutions, such as schools, families, and other professions, to encourage citizens to keep themselves informed. Most of all, say Marvin and Meyer (p. 409), “the press needs a public willing to take the time to inform itself, that will engage and talk to journalists and one another, that is willing to invest resources for quality information” (p. 409). That might difficult, as Risto Kunelius (2009) notes, if information caters more and more to private utility functions, rather than to political practices of power. Hence, while the role of journalism is to inform the public, the people also have to participate (Barger & Barney, 2004; Gans, 2003, p. 56), something that for various reasons does not often happen. The reciprocity expected from journalism’s social contract is thus one in which democracy, at least, relies on the mutual benefit that an informed public entails.

Major Trends and Gaps

The notion that journalism has a social contract describes both the privilege, power, and freedom that journalism has to report on society and the expectations that come to be thrust on journalism in terms of how these privileges, powers, and freedoms are enjoyed. These expectations are moral and qualitative in nature: Journalism should fulfill its obligations in the contract according to established professional ethics—moreover, the information provided by the press should be of relevance to the duties that citizens have to keep themselves informed. Herein lies an expectation that journalism, as a primarily commercial enterprise, should provide content beyond that which maximizes profit (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001, p. 52). To that end, contractual journalism research often overlooks the role of the market in conditioning journalism in democracies. Democracy as a form of government is wholly reliant on private media to fulfill social contract obligations. Beyond public service broadcasting and other state-sponsored information infrastructures, freedom of expression and freedom of publication—as liberal principles—are premised on private enterprise, as governments cannot legitimately be held responsible for providing the only available scrutiny of their own affairs. This points to the normative nature of issues concerning contractarian or reciprocal journalism, and the lack of empirical research on contractual issues beyond what the ethical codes of professional conduct tell us.

More than anything, journalism’s social contract is used implicitly in the research, taken to mean journalism’s obligation to democracy and to the citizenry. While the question of what these obligations explicitly entail remains contested, research has also largely failed to look at what exactly journalism’s rights are in relation to audiences. What journalists can expect from the public is not yet clearly understood—whether it is akin to what states can expect or if, in fact, the commercial nature of news media negates such normative dimensions on the part of journalism.

Further Reading

Altschull, J. H. (1990). From Milton to McLuhan: The ideas behind American journalism. New York, NY: Longman.Find this resource:

Bennett, W. L. (2003). The burglar alarm that just keeps ringing: A response to Zaller. Political Communication, 20(2), 131–138.Find this resource:

Gans, H. J. (2003). Democracy and the news. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Keane, J. (1991). The media and democracy. Cambridge, UK: Polity.Find this resource:

Lippmann, W. (2008). Liberty and the news. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original published in 1920.)Find this resource:

Merrill, J. C. (1974). The imperative of freedom: A philosophy of journalistic autonomy. New York, NY: Freedom House.Find this resource:

Zaller, J. (2003). A new standard of news quality: Burglar alarms for the monitorial citizen. Political Communication, 20(2), 109–130.Find this resource:


Aldridge, M., & Evetts, J. (2003). Rethinking the concept of professionalism: The case of journalism. British Journal of Sociology, 54, 547–564.Find this resource:

Ananny, M., & Kreiss, D. (2011). A new contract for the press: Copyright, public domain journalism, and self-governance in a digital age. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 28(4), 314–333.Find this resource:

Barger, W., & Barney, R. D. (2004). Media-citizen reciprocity as a moral mandate. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 19, 191–206.Find this resource:

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