Free Press Makes Democracy Work

This resource was part of our Election 2020 collection, designed to help you teach about voting rights, media literacy, and civic participation, in remote and in-person settings.


This lesson explores the importance of a free press to democracy, through conversation with journalists from the United States and South Africa. The United States is a centuries-old democracy and South Africa made the transition to democracy from apartheid approximately 20 years ago, but both countries enshrine the right to a free press in their constitutions. “Founding fathers” of both nations emphasized the necessity of a free press: Thomas Jefferson insisted that “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”1 Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first freely-elected President, explained that “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy . . . . It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”2

Freedom House, an independent organization devoted to human rights and civil liberties, defines a free press as “a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”3 In their 2016 assessment of international press freedom, Freedom House classified the US press as “free” and South Africa’s as “partly free.”4 While both countries are officially committed to press freedom, both have also experienced tensions around the role of the press in their democracies.

This lesson features a podcast interview with Sam Fleming, Director of News and Programming at WBUR, a Boston public radio station; and Judith February, a columnist, political commentator, and civil society advocate in Capetown, South Africa. By listening to the podcast and discussing reflection questions, students explore the essential and reciprocal relationship between a free press and responsible citizenship. Optional extensions offer resources for developing critical media literacy in students.

  1. Citations

    • 1 Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Dr. James Currie (January 28, 1786) Lipscomb & Bergh 18:ii.
    • 2 Address by Nelson Mandela to the International Press Institute Congress, February 14, 1994.
    • 3Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon,” Freedom House, accessed May 30, 2017.
    • 4Freedom of the Press 2016,” Freedom House, accessed May 30, 2017.



  1. Begin with Sharing a Quotation
    • Display this quotation from Thomas Jefferson for students to read:

      "When the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe. "(1799)

    • Ask students to paraphrase Jefferson’s words in writing and share it with a partner. Then they should discuss the similarities and differences in how they each understood and paraphrased Jefferson’s ideas.
    • Discuss the quotation as a class, with special attention to the meaning of each word.
      • What would Jefferson have meant by the “press”? What groups, organizations, and individuals do we include in the “‘press” today?
      • What might it mean for the press to be “free”? You may want to refer to the Freedom House definition in the overview to this lesson.
      • What might Jefferson mean by “all is safe”?
      • Does Jefferson believe that a free press is all that is needed to make things “safe”? Why might something more be required? What role do citizens play?
      • Jefferson says that every “man” (today we would say person), must be “able to read.” Is this enough? To find good information and analysis from the press, do citizens need to know anything beyond how to read?
  2. Listen to the Interview
    • Before playing the interview for students, explain that they’ll be hearing from two journalists, one from the United States and one from South Africa. You may find it helpful to share some context on the US and South Africa provided in the overview to this lesson. As they listen, students can consider how Fleming and February’s words connect to Jefferson’s ideas about the role of the press in democracy.


    • Discuss the interview and consider asking students any of the following questions:
      • How are Fleming’s and February’s ideas about the importance of a free press similar to Thomas Jefferson’s? What do they add to your thinking?
      • What does it mean to say that the media is the “oxygen of democracy”?
      • What do good journalists do? What are some of their primary responsibilities? How do they relate to those in power?
      • What do good citizens do when they interact with the media? What does it mean to be a responsible consumer of news? How can the media help people to be better citizens?


In this interview, Sam Fleming alludes to some of the skills necessary for media literacy. Together with partners such as the News Literacy Project and Listenwise, Facing History and Ourselves has developed a number of resources to build news literacy in young people. The resources below can be used within a lesson or to craft an entire unit:

  • The Importance of a Free Press is a lesson that helps students examine the First Amendment and the role of the press in a democracy. It is one of 11 lessons in Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age, a unit that explores the coverage of the 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, MO, as an entry point for developing media literacy.
  • Confronting Fake News: This blog post from Facing Today and Listenwise offers resources and strategies for addressing the challenges of fake news and misinformation on social media.
  • Confronting Confirmation Bias: Giving Truth a Fighting Chance in an Information Age. This article by Alan Miller, head of the News Literacy Project, originally appeared in the journal Social Education. Miller argues that understanding and confronting confirmation bias is a critical part of news literacy.

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