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May 4, 1999
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v2.1 Reference

Uncertain Guardians

The News Media as a Political Institution

The news media are often presumed to be a fourth estate, or fourth branch of government, serving as a check on the other three. In Uncertain Guardians, political scientist Bartholomew Sparrow argues that this is a mistaken notion. Instead, the media—print, radio, and television—affect policy making just as other political institutions do, whether the Congress, the electoral system, or public administration. The media decide what to report, when, and how, and these decisions affect both the processes and outcomes of the political system. But the routine production of the news demands that reporters, editors, publishers, and news executives work with the major political and economic actors of the political system in order to get the news and sell the news, and thus ensure the livelihoods of their news organizations. Because of this dependence, however, the news media are highly constrained in their reportage.

Blending original interview material with his own institutional analysis, Sparrow shows how the major U.S. news organizations can act contrary to the interests of the American public and democratic government. Because individual journalists and news organizations face serious and similar uncertainties with respect to their political credibility, access to news sources, and commercial performance, they rely regularly on the same practices to report the news. But these shared practices enable both journalists and politicians to manipulate political communication, government officials to mislead the public, and advertising and other business factors to have significant influence on the news; they also cause journalists to regret the damage done to democratic government. Sparrow investigates important recent examples in foreign policy, economic policy, and health policy in which the news media were unable to serve as guardians of the public interest. He also offers proposals to revitalize the news media to better serve the American public and the cause of representative government.

By providing an in-depth analysis of the news media's role in the American political system, Uncertain Guardians challenges us to re-evaluate much of what we take for granted as news consumers and to think about how to improve political communication.

About the Author

Bartholomew H. Sparrow is an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.


"Uncertain Guardians has some fine detail on the media's many transgressions, particularly our gormless performance as the watchdog of democracy."

- Molly Ivins - Fort Worth Star-Telegram

"Sparrow opens this extraordinarily well-written book by examining the role of the news media in American political life, paying particular attention to the constraints under which they operate. In subsequent chapters, he analyzes several of these constraints, including how journalists fail to challenge popular political views, or 'policy monopolies,' and succumb to the economic dictates of advertising sponsors. In a crucially important chapter, Sparrow indicts reporters for failing to offer unbiased coverage of several major stories, including the Persian Gulf War, the crash of Korean Airlines Flight 007, the savings and loan crisis, the AIDS epidemic, and progress in cancer treatment. Sparrow is not without hope; his final chapter proposes practical policy reforms ranging from reducing advertisers' subsidies to fostering a problem-centered 'civic journalism' that engages the local community. Sparrow clearly hopes that these proposals make the Fourth Estate more fully accountable to the American people. Recommended."


"Uncertain Guardians is a comprehensive treatment of the news media as a political institution that approaches the subject both empirically and normatively. Sparrow's book is solidly grounded in the academic literature on the subject and, more broadly, in theoretical approaches to Amercian politics."

- Michael Nelson, Rhodes College
Johns Hopkins University Press
Interpreting American Politics
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