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The purpose of journalism

Thomas Jefferson

What Good Is Journalism?

In the following excerpt from the introduction to What Good Is Journalism? How Reporters and Editors Are Saving America’s Way of Life (University of Missouri Press, 2007), editors George Kennedy and Daryl Moen articulate the roles of journalism in a democracy.

Journalism tells us most of what we know about the world beyond our own experience. Journalism goes where its audience cannot or will not. Journalism keeps daily watch on the actions of government and the other powerful institutions of society. Journalism exposes wrongdoing and injustice. Journalism explains in everyday language the findings of science and the arguments of philosophy. Journalism pulls together and organizes obscure but important facts to create useful knowledge. Journalism tells stories of heartbreak and heroism, of triumph and disaster, of the endless fascinations in ordinary life. Journalism is the glue of information that holds a complex nation together.

We are not, of course, the first to note the symbiotic relationship between journalism and democracy. The nation’s founders understood it well, and so they included freedom of the press among the essential liberties protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

James Madison, the principal author of the First Amendment, wrote in 1822, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

Thomas Jefferson had written, even more famously, in 1787, “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Less often quoted is Jefferson’s qualifier: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.”

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