In this post, Emanuela Ceva & Dorota Mokrosinska discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on what grounds the duty of the news media (and citizens) to act as a watchdog.

The news media often claim a quasi-political role as a watchdog entrusted by the people to keep the government in check. This claim has a particular purchase when it comes to the dissemination of whistleblowers’ unauthorized disclosures. The publication in the Guardian and the Washington Post of Edward Snowden’s revelations of classified information about British and US governments’ surveillance programs provide a textbook illustration of this claim.

Widespread as it is, this view of the unique quasi-political role of the news media is hard to justify. In a recent article, we argue that the watchdog role of the news media does not derive from their special status in society. It is rather an instance of a general duty that accrues to any member of a well-ordered society in the face of institutional failures.

The news media are not special

Can we say that the media enjoy a special authorization by the people to oversee the government’s action? In a democracy, the people can be said to authorize the government and the parliament as its oversight body. The powers of the news media are neither conferred upon them by the people nor by the people’s representatives. It is also arguable to claim that the news media enjoy a special quasi-political status because they can best represent the people’s interests. In fact, most of the news media are private corporate actors moved by their own interests and market dynamics. Nonetheless, the view that the news media can claim a watchdog role of government’s actions preserves some intuitive appeal. How may we make sense of this intuition?

To sustain a well-ordered society means to react to accountability deficits

The intuition that the news media have an oversight role of government’s action can be explained as a particular instance of what it means to be a member of a well-ordered society. In a minimal sense, a well-ordered society is a system of interrelated institutions who partake in ensuring a basic function of action coordination. To perform this function, it is essential that each institution and its members use their powers of office in keeping with the terms of their mandate. The preservation of a well-ordered society makes, therefore, its members mutually accountable for their conduct in their institutional capacity. This duty of accountability also grounds a duty to alert against institutional failures. This is a duty of membership that is essential for initiating corrective action in the face of deficits of accountability. Both blowing the whistle about corrupt uses of public power and disseminating whistleblowers’ disclosures about such institutional failures are a part of that duty.

Being a watchdog is an ordinary duty of membership…

Institutional failures such as corrupt uses of public power are not only an assault on people’s individual rights. They are also an attack on the form of societal life that a system of well-functioning institutions makes possible and valuable for its own sake. When whistleblowers disclose some information about an institutional failure, the members of a well-ordered society at the receiving end of these disclosures have a duty to act in order to support corrective action in that respect. On this view, the traditional press, blogs, social networks, WikiLeaks may well perform this function just as any NGO or civil society organization.

… but sometimes the news media are better positioned to act as a watchdog concretely

While the duty to disseminate whistleblowers’ disclosures applies to all members of a well-ordered society, in some cases, it may become more stringent on the news media because they may be better positioned to discharge it in specific circumstances. The news media may have the knowledge and the capacities to initiate a corrective action of an institutional failure more effectively. For example, they have often better access to relevant power networks than ordinary citizens. This condition makes them best positioned to touch the right buttons, as it were, to initiate corrective action. Moreover, the watchdog role should be performed conscientiously. This clause means, for instance, that whistleblowers’ disclosures should be disseminated in ways sensitive to the potential risks for the parties involved. The news media are likely to have the epistemic competences necessary for conscientious action. To acquire and exercise those competences might be too costly for ordinary citizens, who lack the knowledge necessary to check facts to avoid risks of calumny.

The news media’s job is to be better, not special

These arguments are important because, whatever condition might make the news media best positioned to perform the watchdog role, this is not because they have a special mission in virtue of a unique quasi-political role. Their duty to act as watchdog is the same kind of duty that is borne by the other members of society. True, some special circumstances may make the duty more stringent on the news media, but this condition is a matter of empirical contingency, not a matter of principle. Understood in this light, the news media would do well to drop the self-image of being special, and focus on making effective use of their position to perform the role of watchdog to the highest standards.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.