What is often overlooked in discussions about the public interest and media is the government. Every day, the government publishes huge amounts of information, data, and opinions. Even though the press believe and argue that they alone determine the public interest, the government’s publications dwarf theirs. In that role, the government demonstrates unambiguously they have a larger role in the public interest, in particular as they express a democratic mandate that the press lack.
In most cases, though, the press, when they do publish something, are publishing something created by or used by the government. In this sense, despite their protestations, they remain an appendage rather than separate from the government or society. The government is neither monolithic nor totalitarian in its role in society. Instead, its role reminds us that the press exists within a context set and shaped more by the government, in its ability to shape public opinion, than one shaped by the press. However, social media has changed all of this.
In the social media age, though, the press are on the back foot. The government has the means and the resources to broadcast in ways to rival and dwarf the mainstream press. We see two major issues. First, people can find out directly from the government what the press would tell them. The public no longer needs to wait for a reporter to publish, or report, on the government’s press release. The average citizen can get that information for themselves, or have it sent to them if interested, and make their own judgement on the government and the reporting by the press. However, this shows a deeper problem for the press.
The second reason is that even though the press provide explanation, analysis, or adversarial judgement, their dominant position is threatened. In the past, the press provided a focus and a way to understand the government, by creating a prism, through their reporting. Instead of that prism, the average citizen can look at the original sources and start to make their own analysis or rely on niche providers like bloggers.
The challenge that these two reasons reveal is the effect the change has on the government and on democracy. As the government begins to speak directly to the public on a grander scale than ever previously possible, there are two possible consequences. First, the government becomes the dominant media organisation. Second, the government message begins to splinter as various people offer their opinion or news to the media. The message discipline of an official statement starts to weaken as other sources, such as junior staffers or senior staffers, become visible. Neither is certain, but both suggest that the media becomes a smaller player with uncertainty over how it avoids a niche role. Democracy faces a crisis because public opinion becomes fragmented and the common good begins to splinter into niche interests rather than retain a unity based on common opinions on fundamental issues that previously sustained and shaped public opinion.