4.4 Civil Liberties in the Information Age

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Which civil liberty is vital to media operations and why?
  2. Why are civil liberties vulnerable to media frames?
  3. Why is the media’s depiction of civil liberties ambivalent?

“Liberty” is a word with special resonance in the United States. It is hailed in the Pledge of Allegiance. It is featured in the lyrics of patriotic songs. It is emblazoned on coins. The Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty are among the most central symbols of the promise of the United States. News and entertainment often pay homage to the value of civil liberties. Indeed, the media, like the American people as a whole, are strongly committed in principle to civil liberties, especially when presented as elements of the hallowed Bill of Rights. Yet, the media often slight, even undermine, specific civil liberties.

Media Interactions

Media personnel find civil liberties to be a vital topic because they hold fast to freedom of expression as a crucial protection to perform their jobs. Also, the frame of the virtuous individual standing up for beloved principles against the government is easily presentable as a defense of civil liberties.

The rights of the accused are the kernel of many a media story. For instance, dramas from the vantage point of a person wrongly accused by officials of a crime are perennial favorites in films and television. The television drama Perry Mason compiled 271 episodes from 1957 to 1966, and they are endlessly rerun. Each episode is similar: the brilliant lawyer Perry Mason defends his client in court against a rush to judgment by the district attorney and police and, in a climactic cross-examination, unveils the true guilty party.

Nowadays, the media feature crime control. Witness the television show Law and Order and its various spin-offs: these shows are presented from the perspectives of police and prosecutors, not civil liberties. Or consider crime in the news: its good-guys-versus-bad-guys dynamic makes it easy to tell and enables the news to crank out accounts of crime on a day-in-day-out (or hour-in-hour-out) basis. These stories are reported almost entirely from sources in police stations and courts. Crime-beat reporters call up police spokespersons every day and ask, “What have you got?” Police officers are happy to direct reporters to newsworthy events and quick, reliable information. By one estimate, newspapers report nine crime stories a day; local television news includes four a day. Because reporters rely so heavily on police for information, police misconduct, including violations of civil liberties, usually get scant attention (Chermak, 1995).

Similarly, war or other national security crises rarely invite critical media coverage, particularly in the early phases when the media act within a sphere of consensus: a general agreement about the causes of and how to respond to a crisis. The media, already suspected by many of left-leaning bias, are sensitive to accusations of being unpatriotic and are attracted to the saga of the United States unified against its demonized enemies. As a result, the government’s voice is usually enhanced, and dissenters’ voices are muffled, making it easier for the government to advance restrictions on civil liberties in the name of national security.

In the first months after 9/11 officials and reporters began to ask if the failure to predict the terrorist attacks was occasioned by legal restrictions on cooperation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These laws had been set in place to protect civil liberties and discourage the government from spying on its own citizens. Such concerns were eclipsed when the news media referred to legislation to lift those restrictions as “laws to make it easier for the FBI to gather information.”

The media are may be distracted away from civil liberties—and downplay their importance—for one other reason. Asserting civil liberties is often the way unpopular minorities struggle against being repressed or silenced in a majority-rule political system. But such outsiders have trouble getting their concerns into the news on their own terms, particularly if they are opposed to the government. They often have no choice except to make theatrical efforts to attract the news media’s appetite for dramatic conflict, such as demonstrating against or disrupting official events. This makes it hard for them to use the media to claim the civil liberty protections that are vital to their survival.

Media Consequences

The mass media’s choice of frames between law and order and civil liberties has powerful consequences. In one study, people were presented with different frames for a Ku Klux Klan march. When the news story framed the event as a threat to law and order, people gave high priority to the importance of order and low support for the application of civil liberties, the reverse of those who viewed a news story framing the march as an instance of freedom of expression (Nelson, Clawson, & Oxley, 1997; Marcus et al., 1995).

Such ambivalence is not unique to the mass media. All the institutions, processes, and participants in American politics display a strong commitment to civil liberties alongside a willingness to submerge that commitment when other commitments (especially the maintenance of law and order) become more prominent—unless the issue is reframed, notably through media presentations, as one of civil liberties.

That said, the primary advocates and the main beneficiaries of civil liberties are not always—in fact, not often—the downtrodden and the underdog. As we have seen, powerful political forces use the leverage of civil liberties to win battles and gain yet more power. The freedoms of the Bill of Rights are not simply dusty statements of long-held principle. Nor are they simply obligations for government to protect the vulnerable. Instead, the words of the Bill of Rights are tools used in politics by all—and all kinds of—political players.

Key Takeaways

In this section we saw that the media are ambivalent about civil liberties, much like the American public and the participants in American government, as their focus on civil liberties is in tension with at least equally strong concerns about crime and the need for law and order. American politics, powerfully buttressed by the media, is thus equivocal toward civil liberties, valued in principle but often submerged by other, seemingly more pressing, concerns.


  1. How do the television programs and movies you have seen about the legal system treat the issue of civil liberties? Who are the heroes of these shows, and what are they fighting for?
  2. To what extent do you think there is a tradeoff between civil liberties and law and order? To what extent is it possible to protect individual rights and maintain civil order at the same time?


Chermak, S. M., in his book Victims in the News: Crime and the American News Media (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), especially chap. 2.

Marcus, G. E., John L. Sullivan, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, and Sandra L. Wood, With Malice toward Some: How People Make Civil Liberties Judgments (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Nelson, T. E., Rosalee A. Clawson, and Zoe M. Oxley, “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and Its Effect on Tolerance,” American Political Science Review 91 (1997)


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