Declining trust in the American press has been longstanding and corrosive—both to our information environment and to democracy. It is tempting to think that if journalists could just repeatedly and brilliantly play their key role—that of watchdog—it might be redemptive. But doubling down on the watchdog function holds risks in our polarized climate. Research shows that some conservatives recoil from watchdog journalism, finding it too cynical and politicized.
This essay argues that a different journalistic function—one that has received far less attention and adulation from judges and legal scholars—should be encouraged and amplified. This is the press’s role as a convenor and facilitator of the public square.
Traditionally, this public square has been synonymous with the marketplace of ideas—a space that the Supreme Court has called “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” where debate “may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks.” But a metaphorical public square for today’s flagging democracy—in which sharp attacks abound—needs to operate differently. For one, it needs to better take into account how to build trust, understanding, and what philosopher Robert Talisse calls “civic friendship.”
This essay investigates how the press might take up the role of architect, convener, facilitator, and even listener in what I call “public fora”—spaces not simply marked by debate but also by collaboration and deliberation. It looks at how law might help. It argues that with law’s backing, the press can build citizens’ trust in it by helping citizens to trust one another.
3 J. of Free Speech L. 57 (2023). Media and Society After Technological Disruption (Cambridge University Press forthcoming).
Scholarly Commons Citation
Carroll, Erin C., "Beyond the Watchdog: Using Law to Build Trust in the Press" (2023). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2494.