Free Press Makes Democracy Work | Facing History & Ourselves
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Free Press Makes Democracy Work

Students explore the importance of a free press to democracy through recorded conversations with journalists from the United States and South Africa. 


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

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 in the early 1990s, 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 2022 assessment of international press freedom, Freedom House classified the press in the United States and South Africa as “free,” 4 but 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.

  • 1Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Dr. James Currie (January 28, 1786) Lipscomb & Bergh 18:ii.
  • 2Address by Nelson Mandela to the International Press Institute Congress, February 14, 1994.
  • 3“Press Freedom’s Dark Horizon,” Freedom House, accessed May 30, 2017
  • 4 Freedom of the Press 2016,” Freedom House, accessed May 30, 2017.
  • What role does free press play in democracy? 
  • What is the relationship between the press and responsible citizenship?

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 2 activities
  • 1 audio

Preparing to Teach

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Lesson Plan


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?

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?

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