Media and communications

By David Goddy {Associate Editor, Scholastic Update)

The public's right to know is one of the central principles of American society. The men who wrote the Constitution of the United States resented the strict control that the American colonies' British rulers had imposed over ideas and information they did not like. Instead, these men determined, that the power of knowledge should be placed in the hands of the people.

"Knowledge will forever govern ignorance," asserted James Madison, the fourth president and an early proponent of press freedom. "And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."


To assure a healthy and uninhibited flow of information, the framers of the new government included press freedom among the basic human rights protected in the new nation's Bill of Rights. These first 10 Amendments to the Constitution of the United States became law in 1791. The First Amendment says, in part, that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ..."

That protection from control by the federal government meant that anyone — rich or poor, regardless of his political or religious belief — could generally publish what he wished. The result, Madison declared, was that the power to decide what was harmful behavior "is in the people over the Government and not in the Government over the people."

Ever since, the First Amendment has served as the conscience and shield of all Americans who reported the news, who wished to make their opinions public, or who desired to influence public opinion. Over the past two centuries, however, the means of communication — what we now call the "media" — have grown immensely more complex. In Madison's day, the media, created by printing presses, were few and simple — newspapers, pamphlets and books. Today the media also include television, radio, films and cable TV. The term "the press" has expanded to refer now to any news operation in any media, not just print. These various organizations are also commonly called the "news media."

This media explosion has created an intricate and instantaneous nerve system shaping the values and culture of American society. News and entertainment are beamed from one end of the American continent to another. The result is that the United States has been tied together more tightly, and the media have helped to reduce regional differences and customs. People all over the country watch the same shows often at the same time. The media bring the American people a common and shared experience — the same news, the same entertainment, the same advertising.

Indeed, Americans are surrounded by information from the time they wake in the morning until the time they sleep at night. A typical office worker, for instance, is awakened by music from an alarm-clock radio. During breakfast, he reads the local newspaper and watches an early morning news show on TV. If he drives to work, he listens to news, music and traffic reports on his car's radio. At his office, he reads business papers and magazines to check on industry developments. Perhaps he helps plan an advertising campaign for his company's product. At home, after dinner, he watches the evening news on TV. Then he flips through the over 20 channels offered by cable TV to find his favorite show or a ballgame or a recent Hollywood movie. In bed, he reads himself to sleep with a magazine or a book.

Our typical office worker, like most Americans, takes all this for granted. Yet this dizzying array of media choices is the product of nearly 300 years of continual information revolution. Technological advances have speeded up the way information is gathered and distributed. Court cases have gradually expanded the media's legal protections. And, because the news media in the United States have been businesses which depend on advertising and sales, owners have always stressed appealing to the widest possible audiences.