The social responsibility theory of the press first emerged in the twentieth century as the beginning of a shift away from libertarianism. The basic outline of this theory as opposed to others is its emphasis on freedom carrying with it associated obligations. Freedom isn’t just a privilege, it’s a duty. This connects to the press in the sense that, as the press, enjoying a favorable position under our government, we are responsible to society for carrying out specific and essential functions of mass communications in the world today (Peterson, 74).
But to better flesh out this theory in our minds, let us look at a few of the main requirements that the press faces under social responsibility theory, and take a look at how our current press stacks up.
The first requirement of social responsibility theory is servicing the political system by providing information, discussion, and debate on public affairs (Peterson, 74). We all know there is much debate on the news these days, perhaps personified no better than when a network newscast will go to those multi-panel arguments between the raised voices of either party, regardless of the issue. However, there have been cries of “Liberal!” and “Conservative!” when it comes to several major news outlets. Fox has been branded as purely Conservative news and many others like CNN have been labeled liberal. Are these accusations of unbalanced or slanted political reporting consistent with servicing the political system? With the way some government officials have been lashing out at the news media, consider Sarah Palin, it certainly doesn’t seem that way.
Another main requirement, which just might serve as a contradiction to the previous, is safeguarding the rights of the individual by serving as a watchdog against the government (Peterson, 74). The theory says reporting on the government should be accurate and objective, without personal comments. This would make it easier for the viewer to discover the truth, instead of us as reporters telling them what they should think. Do we do that today? Many would argue that we don’t, and when you look at some newscasts in which an “expert” on a political party will come onto the show and have a personal conversation with the reporter or anchor about how or why this politician made that move and what it means, we conceivably lose our objectivity. The theory says we are responsible to the people, and many people take what we say as law. But Peterson also says we have to report the truth behind the fact. He says the press have also attempted a hurried objectivity, in which they provide both sides of the story but in an incomplete way, not supplying the perspective essential to a complete understanding of the situation (Peterson, 88). This results in half-truths, and that should not be the objective of any of us in this class. Whether or not this is prevalent in our news media remains up for discussion.
One final main requirement is to enlighten the public so as to make them capable of self-government (Peterson, 74). The self-government of the people and their freedoms of expression are centered on the duty of the individual to his or her thought under social responsibility theory. Consequently, if any individual weakens their claim to their expression by not assuming their expression, they weaken the claims of others. This is where the collectivist theory comes into play. When considering the nature of the people themselves, social responsibility theory reflects the current culture when it factors in the doubts that contemporary science and thought have cast on the rationality of man. Social responsibility theory does not deny the rationality, but instead denies the libertarian idea that man is innately motivated to search for truth (Peterson, 100). Therefore, social responsibility theory recognizes that citizens are morally obligated to be informed, and how they do so is their choice. I would say this is a case in which our media today are proficient in. I believe we do allow citizens plenty of opportunities to be informed, and leave their choice of how they do it wide open.
This is of course assuming that the people believe we report accurate news. Two weeks ago, a Pew research survey revealed that public assessment of the accuracy of news stories has hit a two-decade low. 63% of the country said news stories are for the most part inaccurate, up 29% from 1985.
With that in mind, whether or not our current media stack up to this theory, would it be the best for us today? Or is the most meaningful system, as John Merrill would say, an authoritarian system (Merrill, 36)? I would very much like to discuss.
Research study: http://people-press.org/report/543/