This review from the World Bank’s Communication for Governance and Accountability Program finds that news media are important in furthering democratic governance, provided they are set up in a way that allows them to act as effective watchdogs, agenda setters and gatekeepers. Barriers to the fulfilment of these roles include restrictions on press freedom, market failures, lack of professional standards, weak civil society, and limitations in media literacy and public access to the media. Further research is required to fully determine the relationship between a free media and democratic governance.
In theory, the news media can act as: (1) watchdogs, to provide a check on powerful sectors of society; (2) agenda setters, raising awareness of social problems; and (3) gatekeepers, bringing together diverse interests and viewpoints to debate issues of public concern. However, to what extent and under what conditions do the media perform these roles effectively? Findings include the following:
- Available empirical evidence suggests that in many countries the media does often promote transparency, despite constraints on journalists.
- Comparison of how press freedom (monitored annually by Freedom House) relates to perceived control of corruption (measured by the Kaufmann-Kraay index) in different types of regimes finds that: in democratic (free) states there is a strong correlation, with half of the variation of the perceived level of corruption explained by the degree of press freedom; in consolidating (partly free) democracies there is no such correlation; in nondemocratic (not free) states there is a very modest correlation.
- Case studies indicate that local media are particularly effective watchdogs, and that television and radio are important in reaching illiterate populations. In Madagascar’s education system, for example, the effect of anticorruption campaigns varied by type of media, with television and radio (particularly local broadcasts) being important in areas with high levels of illiteracy. In Brazil, non-corrupt officials received vote bonuses in regions where local radio covered audit results on the use of federal funds.
- In many newer democracies, the news media are effective in strengthening political interests and knowledge. Yet a lack of balance in the public forum persists. The most extreme cases are found in autocracies that use state-controlled media as a mouthpiece.
The correlation between free press and democratic governance appears quite robust. However, researchers still understand little about how this relationship works in practice, and thus what needs reforming in order to strengthen good governance. To improve understanding, the following types of research are needed:
- Systematic content analysis data monitoring the extent to which journalists do or do not focus on exposing corrupt officials, investigating financial wrongdoing, or revealing cases of bribery in high office.
- Research to identify the particular aspects of media systems and the types of media outlets, genres, formats, societal conditions, legal contexts, and political environments that help to establish the link.
- More systematic and detailed studies of the media’s impact on policymaking, and more sensitive indicators that can connect the dots in the extended chain of causality between the agenda-setting role of the press, public concerns about an issue, and the response of elected officials to social needs.