Press and Government Relations

Daniel C Hallin. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

The development of news media is closely tied to the emergence of modern government. Indeed, news media organizations have always been intimately tied to government and political institutions more generally; they are often considered a political institution, a kind of “fourth branch of government.” Early newspapers served to shape public opinion in the course of battles between and within states, to integrate citizens into developing administrative structures of the modern state and provide them with the information necessary to manage their interactions with those institutions. They were central to the production of the “imagined communities” described by researcher Benedict Anderson, which were the cultural manifestation of the rise of the modern state. The news media expanded in importance as popular participation in political life expanded, often through the extension of institutions of mass democratic politics, but also through authoritarian institutions for the mobilization of mass opinion. News media are tied to the state through a dense and complex network; much of their content focuses on the activities of government, and governments, for their part, often devote large amounts of attention and resources to their relations with news media. There is a long history of political polemics about the relation between journalism and government, and a substantial body of scholarly research and theory on that relationship.

Theories of Press–Government Relations

A key distinction needs to be made between normative and empirical theories of journalism and government, that is, theories of what roles the state and media should play in relation to one another, and theories about what roles they actually play. The dominant normative theory across most of the modern world is derived from liberalism, as expressed in such classic early works as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. This conception emphasizes the need for a press independent of the state, which will provide the basis for the independent public opinion on which the legitimacy of democratic government is based. In its later formulations, this view is connected with the idea of the news media as a “watchdog” of the state, providing a counterweight to state power.

The polar opposite to liberal theory is what Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm called, in their influential Four Theories of the Press, the Authoritarian theory, in which the state is conceived as having essential responsibility for protecting the interest of society as a whole, the “oppositional” role of the press (so valued in much liberal theory) is consequently seen as socially destructive, and state control of the press or at least close cooperation between press and state are more valued than is press independence. Authoritarian theory was dominant in an earlier era. One of the most developed versions was the communist theory of journalism as an apparatus for revolutionary transformation of society. Another significant version can be found in the idea of “Asian Values” in journalism, as articulated by political leaders in authoritarian states such as Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir once wrote that the press should “conscientiously limit the exercise of its rights” and that “democratic governments have a right to control it” when it does not (quoted in Nain 2000, 146).

Within liberal political systems, some elements of authoritarian theory coexist, as for example with “national security,” where many argue that patriotism should prevail over the “watchdog” function of the press. There is also an important distinction in democratic systems between more classical liberal systems—the United States being the most important example—where government intervention is seen as a barrier to press freedom, and systems where government is assigned a more positive role in assuring the conditions under which press freedom can prosper. This is more typical of European societies with traditions of a strong welfare state, where institutions such as public service broadcasting and press subsidy systems are justified in these terms. France, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries, for example, have systems of press subsidies that are intended to keep alive a greater number and diversity of newspapers than the market would otherwise allow.

Functions of the State

The state plays many different kinds of roles in relation to the news media. These include the following:

  • Censor.
  • Owner. Public service broadcasting is one version of government-owned media, though such systems are often structured as relatively autonomous from government control; they are publicly owned rather than government owned. In other cases governments or government-owned companies own or invest in media enterprises.
  • Funder. This can take the form of direct subsidies, tax breaks, loans, government advertising, and sometimes patronage (jobs, contracts, other payments to media owners or journalists).
  • Regulator. Broadcasting is almost always state regulated. Forms of regulation range from restrictions on cigarette advertising to hate speech laws to shield laws that give journalists special rights to confidentiality.
  • “Primary definer.”This refers to government as a provider of information and of interpretive frameworks relied on by journalists, and as an agenda setter, a provider of cues about what is news and what is not.

News Media as a Fourth Branch of Government

Although liberal press theory emphasizes separation of media and government and even sees them as adversaries, research has often emphasized their interdependence and the ways in which journalists and media have become an integral part of the governing process. The different roles of the state listed above is one illustration. Even in an open society like the United States, government has played an important role in subsidizing news media, which were seen as an essential element of democracy as well as a key lever of power. Subsidized postal rates, government jobs (postmaster, customs inspector, etc.), and printing contracts, for example, were crucial to the early growth of American newspapers.

The government as a primary definer of news also illustrates this interdependence. Research in Britain and the United States has shown the media in those countries rely just as heavily on government officials as news sources as do journalists in other countries (France, for example) where government intervenes much more as a regulator, funder, and owner of media. Theories of the news-making process have consistently emphasized the central role of government officials as sources, and the fact that journalists’ routines of news gathering tie them closely to government officials, as, for example, in the “beat” system that organizes journalism around divisions of the government. Government and media rely heavily on one another: government officials need the media in order to communicate with the mass public and often with other political actors, and journalists rely on the government as a steady source of usable, newsworthy content. The tremendous resources governments often devote to servicing the media have sometimes been referred to as an “information subsidy,” as they make it easier and cheaper for journalists to cover the news. Journalists get privileged access to government officials—when the President of the United States travels on Air Force One, for example, he is normally accompanied not only by his top aides and other political leaders, but by journalists. officials, in return, get privileged access to the news media, where their words, concerns, deeds, and faces regularly appear.

Lapdogs or Watchdogs

There are important debates about the balance of power between media and government and the character of the relationship between them, which can be summarized as a debate about whether the media are watchdogs, aggressively scrutinizing government officials, or lapdogs, mostly colluding with or manipulated by them. Communications researcher Gadi Wolfsfeld distinguishes among three characterizations of the media’s relations to government; “faithful servant,” “semi-honest broker,” and “advocate of the underdog.” A variant of the latter, which sees the media as an adversary of government, often as an overly aggressive watchdog which hurts the public interest by undermining support for governing institutions and making it more difficult for officials to govern, became more common in the 1970s and 1980s. The media in many countries did shift in that period toward a more assertive stance toward government officials and more negative coverage of politicians and political authority. The growth of political scandals since the 1970s illustrates this trend. There is considerable debate about whether this trend represents a beneficial shift from overly deferential media to something closer to the honest broker role, or from honest broker to dangerous usurper of the authority elected officials should exercise. And there is debate about how much the shift is really driven by media and how much by other actors. Politicians themselves often voiced antigovernment rhetoric beginning in this period—that was central to Ronald Reagan’s appeal, for example.

On the other side of the spectrum, the best-known statement of the “faithful servant” perspective is Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s “propaganda model” of media–government relations, which sees media as dominated by elites who hold wealth and power in society, and are able to use the media to “manufacture consent” in mass public opinion. Their view sees media as dominated not only by government—though they place heavy emphasis on the state—but also by business elites, and they see these two sets of actors as acting in harmony.

Journalists like to see themselves as honest brokers, covering politics in a way that gives fair representation to a wide range of actors, and playing the watchdog role in a responsible and essentially objective way. Wolfsfeld uses the term “semi-honest broker” because virtually all researchers would acknowledge that the media are affected at least to some degree by inequalities of wealth and power, and that some actors—including certainly government officials—will always have more access and influence than others. The bulk of research can be described as falling somewhere between the honest broker and faithful servant perspectives, in the sense that it sees journalists and news organizations as independent actors, often genuinely committed to the watchdog and honest broker ideals, but at the same time recognizes that the newsmaking process is influenced by structures of power, and that government officials exercise central if not unlimited influence. This scholarship also sees the relation between media and government as variable rather than constant, with news media sometimes acting like faithful servants, sometimes more like honest brokers, and sometimes—more rarely—like advocates of the underdog, depending on political circumstances. One version of this is the “indexing” theory, which holds that the range of views represented in the news will be “indexed” to the degree of debate among political elites, becoming wider when elites are divided and actively debating an issue and narrower when they are not. In some versions of this theory, the media not only reflect the varying degrees of elite debate, but their own role also shifts: they are more independent and assertive in gathering and interpreting the news when elites are divided. Robert Entman’s “hierarchy of influences” theory is a related attempt to synthesize research on political communication, which attempts to show how the political role of the media shifts depending on a number of factors, including divisions among political elite, but also, in some cases, such factors as mobilizations by social movements and the cultural resonance of various interpretations with journalists and news audiences.

These theories apply to liberal systems with media that are relatively independent of government economically and organizationally. In other systems, censorship, dependence of media on government, or tight alliances between media owners and governing parties will produce something much more consistently close to the faithful servant model.

Variations in Media–Government Relations

Relations between media and government vary considerably from one political system to another. Differences between liberal and authoritarian systems and between systems in which government intervention in media markets varies have already been mentioned. One important distinction has to do with the degree of political parallelism in the news media, that is, the degree to which news organizations and journalists have political alliances or allegiances. In some systems, media have clearly identifiable political orientations, report the news from the point of view of particular factions, and in some cases participate in the process of debate and negotiation among those factions. In other systems media avoid particular partisan entanglements, and present themselves to audiences as providers of neutral information to a non-aligned public. The effects of many forms of government intervention also vary considerably depending on the nature of governing institutions. Government subsidy to news organizations, for example, may have little effect on media independence in systems with clear and transparent rules for the allocation of subsidies, and great effect in systems where government funds can be used at the discretion of political authorities to reward or punish the media.


The news media form a central institution of political life, and always have a dense network of connections with governing institutions. The nature of those connections varies depending on the role of news media in a particular society—their economic basis, for example, and the culture of journalism that prevails within them—and also on the nature of political institutions—how centralized power is within them, and the extent to which they are governed by legal rules, for example. The relationship of media to government also varies with historical circumstances—the American media acted very differently in relation to government during the 1970s Watergate scandal than they did in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.