For many, the press is society’s greatest defender. But the concept of the press holding a social responsibility is actually relatively new, having been introduced in the 20th century. Prior to this, editors would often publish facts without offering a meaningful interpretation. This led to many readers misinterpreting the information which led to social disorder.
Journalists took many preventive measures against this. They decided that they had a responsibility to the society they served to establish a universal code of conduct, to aspire to a high standard of journalism, to self-regulate, and to operate independently of the government as a democratic institution.
The press established many methods to achieve the latter goal. One was to encourage members of the public to comment on important issues. A good example of this would be the public opinion and letter pages featured in newspapers such as The Daily Mail, which allow readers to contribute their own thoughts on current affairs. In addition, this links to the press’ duty to provide a pluralistic media, which means to include the perspectives of people belonging to different social groups. The BBC’s unbiased style of reporting is a classic example of this. Despite frequently allegations of liberalism, the corporation also endeavours to represent the views of every Briton.
Furthermore, it also became important that journalist worked to benefit society by highlighting social problems and encouraged a democracy where every individual had a voice.
The Washington Post and The Guardian’s publishing of NSA files leaked by Edward Snowden offer a textbook example of journalists honouring their social responsibilities. The revelation that the NSA was using Britain’s GCHQ as a reservoir to store and read the public’s private emails, files, and documents. It was screamingly obvious that this information was overwhelmingly in the public interest, and the Guardian and the Post worked tirelessly to organise the information into a shape which could be understood by the public.
However, there have been instances where publications have neglected, ignored, or abused their social responsibilities. The Sun’s infamous coverage of the 1989 Hillsborough coverage, which alleged that football fans had pickpocketed the dead and urinated on police officers, is a sobering demonstration of how inaccurate reporting can mutilate the truth for generations. Not only did these newspapers smear the memory of the disaster’s victims, causing unimaginable torment for the mourners, and possibly delay the course of justice for 27 years, but they betrayed the readership who trusted them to provide reliable reporting.