Comparative Models of Journalism

Judy Polumbaum. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

The study of comparative models of journalism endeavors to describe, compare, classify, analyze, and explain news systems in diverse countries, cultures, and political systems, and across time periods. This area of research has evolved from largely descriptive and value-laden efforts of U.S. scholars during the 1950s to differentiate media by systems of political control into an important and increasingly sophisticated subfield of international and comparative communication characterized by an array of different approaches.

In the past, models of journalism have tended to be “normative” or prescriptive in nature, hinging on implicit if not explicit moral judgments about what structures, practices, and outcomes are “best” for a society. Comparative models of journalism also are typically descriptive rather than analytical, concerned with similarities and differences in the features of media systems than with explanations of what accounts for such similarity and difference.

Such comparisons across cultures also have tended to rest on the assumption that Western, and particularly Anglo-American, ways of organizing and doing journalism constituted the desirable norm. Part of this is due simply to the fact that many of the relevant researchers come from North America and Britain. From this perspective, government constraints are seen as the greatest danger to freedom of expression, while private ownership of media is the most important bulwark against government interference.

Although this view has fallen out of favor among academics, partly due to a broader movement to “de-Westernize” media studies, it still prevails in policy studies and advocacy carried out by international media watchdog organizations such as the New York–based Freedom House and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which issue annual rankings of the world’s press freedom on a country-by-country basis.

The “Four Theories” Formulation

The roots of such studies go back to the 1956 publication of Siebert et al.’s Four Theories of the Press, whose authors sought to explain why mass media (with an emphasis on newspapers) took different forms and served different purposes in different countries. Surmising that variations in financing, technology, resources, urbanization, and national experience were all factors, they identified the most important reason for differences in philosophical and political rationale. They classified press systems as authoritarian, libertarian, Soviet communist, and social responsibility, with each category resting on a particular political philosophy and mode of state organization.

Over the next several decades, the “four theories” formulation was among the most influential approaches to U.S. study and teaching of international and comparative communication. It began to come under more critical scrutiny in the 1970s and 1980s, as scholars found weaknesses and omissions in the categories, and drew increasing criticism in the 1990s for its underlying cold war premises. Nevertheless, Siebert et al.’s work retains both historical and residual importance in the field, and remains an important starting point for reviewing literature in this area.

In this approach, the authoritarian system entails direct government control of mass media, and is characteristic of predemocratic societies in which governing power is concentrated in the hands of small ruling elites, typically monarchies. Media organizations and individuals working for them have no independence under such a system, in which the government is likely to mete out drastic punishment for any expression of difference with established authority.

The libertarian system hinges on the political philosophy of European Enlightenment thinkers, and their insistence that human beings have an inherent right to expression. Underlying this system is the conviction that, given exposure to freely circulated information and ideas, a society will go with the best choices, and that freedom from government control is the best way to ensure such an environment. This system rejects state limitations on media and assigns media organizations and workers autonomy from government.

The Soviet communist system is a modern variant of the authoritarian category. As the name implies, this system is closely tied to a particular ideology—the communist vision of Marx and Engels that inspired the Russian Revolution—as well as structures and practices that emerged in the Soviet Union, in which all media organizations were owned by the state and ostensibly subordinate to the interests of the working class.

The social responsibility system, offered as an improvement on libertarianism, takes its vocabulary from the so-called Hutchins Commission (Commission on the Freedom of the Press, 1947), which emphasized the news media’s obligations to provide the public with accurate, balanced, and true information, and warned that increasing concentration of private ownership of news outlets was undermining the media’s ability to fulfill these duties. In line with the Hutchins study, Siebert et al. saw the concept of responsibility as key to effective self-regulation by media organizations and practitioners. They did not question or posit alternatives to commercial ownership, nor did they advocate government regulation of media.

Elaboration, Qualification, and Critique of the “Four Theories”

Amidst growing attention to international development after World War II as well as increasing U.S. involvement in development projects abroad, scholars concerned with the role of communication in developing countries offered their own typologies of media systems incorporating this concern. These efforts mainly involved renaming and adding categories.

Longtime journalism educators and collaborators John Merrill and Ralph Lowenstein, in Media, Messages, and Men (1979), emphasized mode of ownership, and added a fifth category, social centrist, referring to government or public ownership of a libertarian-oriented press. They also renamed the Soviet communist category social-authoritarian, to suggest that this model also had social responsibility attributes. International communication specialist William Hachten, in the original 1981 edition of his best-known work, World News Prism (subsequently revised with James Scotton, 2006) used five categories: authoritarian, Western (incorporating both libertarian and social responsibility), Communist, revolutionary (subversive, devoted to the overthrow of a government), and developmental.

Media researcher Herbert Altschull (1984/1995) found flaws in defining systems by what they purported to do, noting that most every country claims a system providing for the needs and interests of its people. He initially divided the map of media systems into the First World, roughly corresponding with Siebert et al.’s libertarian model; the Second World, or Soviet; and the Third World, or developmental model; but in later efforts to strip his typology of value judgments, he revised his categories as market, communitarian, and advancing. Altschull acknowledged that these were idealized categories, neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive, and likely to appear in hybrids rather than as pure forms.

Some scholars proposed adding or substituting categories such as development, democratic-participant, democratic-socialist, liberal-pluralist, paternalist, or professional—all with slightly varied definitions depending on author and time. Others noted that, in stressing political philosophy and the nature of the state as the foundation of the mass media system, Siebert et al. neglected to consider the formative role of mass media on society, including politics, as well as the interdependent and interactive relationships between media and society. In addition, the focus on national-level politics and economics excluded scrutiny of factors operating at occupational, organizational, and individual levels, such as professionalism, socialization, or autonomy, that might have important bearing on media production and products.

In a concerted reassessment of Siebert et al. nearly four decades later, titled Last Rights: Revisiting Four Theories of the Press (1995), journalism historian John Nerone and colleagues, building on a series of discussions at the University of Illinois Institute of Communications, provided the most extensive critique to that point, offering sharp conclusions and also raising continuing questions about what they deemed one of the most influential works of communication scholarship to emerge in postwar America and endure through the cold war.

Among their general reservations was the observation that a set of ideas that purported to be applicable across time in fact arose from and remained tied to a particular historical moment just a decade following World War II, characterized by ideological commitments to a free-market media system combined with a neoliberal concern for social welfare and institutional responsibility. Moreover, these critics noted, the formulation put forth as four distinct theories was actually “one theory with four examples”—the underlying proposition being that a communication system reflects the society in which it operates.

The Nerone group found uneven degrees of specificity in the four theories, as well as considerable conceptual confusion; in their view, Siebert et al. failed to distinguish between abstractions and realities in establishing their categories, with the result that the explication of authoritarianism really described a purported set of practices, whereas the discussion of libertarianism rested on ideas of specific thinkers, and the social responsibility and Soviet communist models were grounded in historical experience.

All four categories, according to Nerone et al., are vast oversimplifications. They conclude that authoritarianism is more invention than reality, libertarianism a reduction of a vast amount of diverse liberal political thought into a simple formula, and social responsibility a vague notion that means different things to different people—from calls for limited adjustment in a media system that remains primarily driven by markets and profits to a modern model seeking curtailment of the profit motive in the arena of news and opinion, and a radical approach calling for broader social transformation in which media serve as creators of authentic community.

Finally, Nerone et al. identified the central conceptual problem of the scheme is its ideological grounding in one of the four models—libertarian-ism—and, in particular, the assumption of a basic dichotomy between the state and private interest as the key to media “freedom.” This perspective, they say, generates the thinking and vocabulary behind the entire taxonomy. Furthermore, these ideological underpinnings are never made explicit. They are evident, however, in the absence of consideration of any forms of media controlled by entities other than the state or private capital.

While Nerone et al. cast considerable doubt on the entire enterprise of attempting to map press systems, they do not advocate abandoning the effort. They do suggest, however, that such endeavors may be more useful as history than theory; and that at the very least, scholars attempting such mapping must be cognizant of their own ideological assumptions as well as the context of their times.

Complicating Factors

From the late twentieth century on, historical upheavals, geopolitical realignments, new technologies, and many other factors greatly complicated attempts to identify and characterize journalism models. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the reorientation of development policy in the People’s Republic of China from a controlled economy to market-driven reforms, the privatization of national broadcasting systems and emergence of new commercial media outlets in many parts of the world, and other developments made sweeping generalizations about countries, regions, and media systems increasingly untenable.

Meanwhile, the expansion of the Internet and the acceleration of global flows of people, goods, money, and media blurred boundaries beyond containment, so the conventional unit of analysis for systemic analysis, the nation, often seemed inadequate. At the same time, geopolitical change and globalization made international and comparative communication issues, including the workings of journalism in different societies, of increasing interest to researchers. Nerone et al. identified the changing information environment in both national and global arenas as key to recasting studies of news media. Writing in the 1990s, they noted that journalism’s subject matter, constituencies, institutions, and procedures, along with information infrastructure and regulatory regimens, increasingly operated on a global scale.

For twenty-first-century scholarship, the response to the vast changes across the globe has been both greater sophistication and lesser ambitions. Rather than seeking a universal scheme to supplant the once-dominant “four theories,” scholars have attempted to distinguish journalism models along clearly defined dimensions—emphasizing, for instance, the role of political economy, the weight of cultural traditions, the influence of occupational or individual values, or, more commonly, interactions among these and other diverse factors. Another response is to attempt to identify models or variations found among a selection of countries defined by region, shared historical experiences or cultural values, and/or other presumably common features—for example, East Asia, Scandinavia, or postsocialist countries.

Scholars attempting to develop a framework that incorporates Asian press systems, for instance, have called for much greater attention to endogenous cultural values shaping journalism philosophy and practice, as well as many Asian countries’ diverse experiences with socialism and government intervention.

U.S. media researcher Daniel Hallin and Italian media researcher Paolo Mancini (2004), in their co-authored study of media systems in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, explicate three models in terms of political and economic arrangements, legal and regulatory frameworks, and professionalization. They identify what they call a Liberal Model (Britain, Ireland, and North America), a Democratic Corporatist Model (continental Europe), and a Polarized Pluralist Model (the Mediterranean), presenting these conclusions as empirical rather than normative models as part of an explicit break with prior approaches. They find that differences among the models are diminishing as journalism’s role becomes less political and more commercial.

Overall, empirically based propositions offering fundamental insights into cross-cultural variations in journalism institutions, processes, and products have proved elusive, leading some scholars to believe that large questions about why journalism in any given time and place operates the way it does are not amenable to theorizing at all. In addition, national, regional, and global communications have become moving targets, hard to characterize in any enduring sense. From this perspective, idiosyncratic aspects of journalism in a given setting—arising, for instance, from social movements, elite factionalism, economic stress, or other culturally and/or historically contingent influences and interests, as well as the ways specific social actors behave and respond—may be more significant than aspects common to other settings, while circumstance and even happenstance may be more important explanatory factors than identifiable patterns among key variables.