There is a new paper out by James M. Snyder Jr and David Stromberg on Press Coverage and Political Accountability. The abstract reads,
In this paper we estimate the impact of press coverage on citizen knowledge, politicians' actions, and policy. We find that a poor fit between newspaper markets and political districts reduces press coverage of politics. We use variation in this fit due to redistricting to identify the effects of reduced coverage. Exploring the links in the causal chain of media effects -- voter information, politicians' actions and policy -- we find statistically significant and substantively important effects. Voters living in areas with less coverage of their U.S. House representative are less likely to recall their representative's name, and less able to describe and rate them. Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies: they are less likely to stand witness before congressional hearings, to serve on constituency-oriented committees (perhaps), and to vote against the party line. Finally, this congressional behavior affects policy. Federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress.The bits I have emphasized make interesting reading. While the paper is based on US data one has to wonder just how applicable the general result is. Press coverage affects the incentives politicians face In situations where they receive a lot of coverage the chances of being exposed as not working for voters is higher and hence politicians work more. The extra work shows up as extra spending.
A free press has effects on the actions of politicians in more substantive cases as well. Amartya Sen has argued that during the history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press. The governmental policies that result in famine can remain uncorrected only if the are uncriticised due to there being no opposition parties in parliament, no multiparty elections and no free press. It is, in Sen's view, precisely this lack of challenge that allow deeply defective policies to continue even though they can be killing millions. Consider North Korea or Zimbabwe as recent examples.
(HT: Marginal Revolution)