The Media And The Public Disagree On Definition Of Democracy

Journalists tend to have a more elitist view of democracy than many Americans

Getty Images
Feb 28, 2017 at 5:22 PM ET

Mainstream media faced criticism from all sides of the political divide for their coverage of the election campaign. President Donald Trump’s surprising victory led to accusations that journalists on the coasts are out of touch with the rest of the country and that the media is biased or elitist.

The source of this disconnect, it turns out, stems from the difference in the way political journalists and the American public view democracy, according to a study by the University of Missouri School of Journalism published in Journalism Studies. Journalists tend to have a more “elitist” view of democracy, according to the study’s authors Tim Vos and David Wolfgang of U.M. This means that once a political candidate is elected into office, he will have control over decision making, without extensive input from the public. The job of journalists is simply to inform the public about what is going on in government to best prepare the public for the next election cycle.

“This version of democracy is what some theorists call ‘elitist democracy’— elites do the business of governing and journalism performs a checking function on behalf of a disinterested public,” the authors wrote in the 18-page report, which was originally published in October.

This differs from the “populist” view more widely held by Americans which is that the public should have input on political candidates’ decisions throughout their term. Under this philosophy of democracy, journalists would cover the opinions of different social groups.

“This disconnect has shown itself many times in recent months, as a large portion of the American public has expected political news to be covered in one way while reporters are covering political news in a different way,” Vos said.

By performing extensive interviews with political journalists from national publications, Vos and Wolfgang found that lack of diversity of sources was also responsible for the divide between journalists and the public. The demand for quick reporting has meant that journalists often turn to one source they know will respond quickly, but many times this comes at the expense of including multiple sources. The philosophy of “elite” democracy also means that political journalists favor the voices of elite government officials above other sources, which can leave viewpoints outside the two main political parties unreported.

“This not only has led to many readers being upset about the style, tone and content of the news coverage, but also journalists appearing out-of-touch with their audience,” Vos said. “While neither of these views about democracy are wrong, journalists need to do a better job of understanding their audiences so they can cover political issues better.”