There is no immediate or absolute relationship between the media and democracy in the sense that, without media, there could be no democracy. Similarly, it does not follow that with the (modern) media comes democracy. Autocracies exist wherein the media supports a political system, and likewise, democracies exist wherein the media works to undermine a political system. However, most often the media and democracy are viewed as supporting each other. This connection is the product of a long historical development, one peculiar to European (and North American) societies, involving not only institutions and practices directly linked to the media-based and democratic processes, but numerous other institutions (such as education, the political system, religion, etc.) as well.
The media are not the only institutions that promote (or do not promote) democratic legitimacy. Other major institutions of such influence include education, religion, public authority, cultural institutions, and political systems, among others. From a wider societal viewpoint, the role of the media is rather reduced in influence. If, for example, an education system is based on ethnic or other forms of segregation, or if there is widespread religious intolerance, or if public authority suffers from corruption, it is obvious that the media has only so many resources to encourage systemic legitimacy. The fundamental interrelatedness of different social institutions makes it difficult, or even impossible, to study the media as a phenomenon isolated from the rest of society. For this reason, we should be careful when making comparisons between the media in different countries, even the media outlets within liberal democracies.
In addition, there is no consensus as to the right balance of media and other social institutions in a democracy. Throughout the history of democracy, the relations between institutions (the political system, economy, media, and civil society) have undergone renegotiations and adjustments during times of crisis. Over the past few decades, this relationship appears to have reached a new crisis, one that continues to this day and still lacks a clear solution. In many countries, civil society–based media reform movements have been established with clear goals to further democratize media systems. One of the key arguments of these movements has centered on the contradiction between the constitutional obligations of democratic countries and the reality that, in practice, these rights do not apply equally to all. There remain major differences today between different social groups in terms of open access to and the unrestricted availability of information, the ability to utilize information according to one’s needs, having a voice represented by decision-makers, and respect for privacy and personal integrity.
Scientific advances, technological development, and changes in risk consciousness have led to stronger demands on society to manage and control various kinds of risks. Risks should be assessed, prevented, controlled, and communicated in order to prevent negative impacts. Risks related to the environment and health are probably some of the most research-dependent examples. It is primarily scientific experts that provide knowledge to authorities, organizations, and citizens about environmental and health risks and thus exert considerable influence on the understanding and management of risk. At the same time, there are actors in society—especially citizen and interest organizations—that question whether risk regulation is reliable and relevant. There are also demands that citizens should have more transparency and control over risk regulation. The current situation is characterized thus by a paradox: Issues relating to environment and health are seen as increasingly expert dependent while citizens simultaneously demand increased influence over them. This development is especially noticeable in the European Union, with its strong emphasis on the rights of citizen and consumers to have access to information about risk and also opportunities to influence their regulation.
In response to this situation, risk governance has been put forward. It refers to a body of ideas for how to more responsibly and efficiently deal with complex risks issues, where there are different interests and standpoints about how to regulate them. Fundamental ideas of risk governance are openness, transparency, participation, inclusion, deliberation, and reflexivity; that experts involved should be open to questioning the situation; should not conceal issues of uncertainty and pluralism (that there exist different legitimate understandings, evaluations, and recommendations); and should be receptive to the input and participation of other stakeholders. This means that risk regulation should no longer be organized into three discrete activities: risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication (aiming at a one-way transfer of knowledge from the regulators to the public).