Theories of Journalism

Hai L Tran. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

Theories of journalism define its nature and role within the context of different societies. These normative theories do not seek to predict or interpret news media phenomena, nor do they simply describe press systems. Instead, they reflect how news media ideally should be structured and operated under certain political conditions and social values. Press theories provide a framework to examine the relationship of journalism and society as well as what is expected of the media according to the social environment. A basic intent of the theories is to set out ideal standards against which the performance of each news media system can be evaluated. Another important goal is to compare key aspects of journalism in different societies and categorize news media systems around the world by the essential similarities and differences. Theories of journalism, therefore, serve as guides for journalists, media critics, and scholars in the field of mass communication.


Theories of journalism derive from multiple sources. Basic elements have been drawn from perceptions about the press as disparate as those of authoritarians in the late Renaissance, John Milton, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin. More specific ideas centered upon professionalism, ethics, and social control. The first attempt to systematically study the role and function of mass media within a specific social setting was the work of the Hutchins Commission in the 1940s. In response to the increasing criticisms of the American press, which appeared to be moving toward sensationalism, commercialism, and monopoly—and away from objectivity—Henry Luce, co-founder of Time magazine, funded an independent commission of inquiry to deflect possible government intervention. Chaired by Robert Hutchins, chancellor of the University of Chicago, the commission was charged with investigating the state of journalism and the media more generally and making recommendations concerning their role. A Free and Responsible Press, the commission’s 1947 report, provided a framework for assessing the social responsibilities of American journalism.

Subsequent studies by media scholars compared and contrasted news media systems in different social environments. Several theories of journalism have developed since the mid-1950s. Regardless of how many typologies may be suggested, there are only a few widely accepted approaches to society news media classification. They are known as Four Theories, Five Concepts, and Three Movements. Other perspectives are more or less variations of these three models.

Four Theories

No framework of theorizing the relation between journalism and society has been more influential than the University of Illinois Press’s all-time non-fiction best-selling book, Four Theories of the Press. First published in 1956, it has been widely taught in journalism courses and translated into more languages than any other media textbook. The authors, Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm, proposed a typology of four theoretical categories for understanding news media systems: authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet communist. The proposition underlying the Four Theories model was that news media always reflect a country’s system of social control.

Authoritarian theory is the oldest concept of journalism, appearing in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Johannes Gutenberg’s innovation of printing with movable type in the fifteenth century led to a communication revolution that challenged both church and state monopolies on knowledge. In response, governments severely restricted the press to maintain absolute authority. The authoritarian concept evolved from the philosophy espoused by such thinkers as Plato, Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and Georg Hegel. They all consider the individual to be subordinate to society. Possession of knowledge is the province of authorities who justify their control as a means to protect social order. In an authoritarian system, the main purpose of journalism is to support and advance government policies. News media are allowed to operate with government’s permission and subjected to government patents, guilds, licensing, and censorship. Although private ownership is provided, news media are obligated to endorse the version of the truth supplied by the national leadership. Journalism must function for “the good of the state” and cannot challenge, criticize, or in any way undermine government’s authority. The authoritarian theory of journalism flourishes wherever a “strongman” type of government exists. The concept is widespread in several regions of the world, including parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Libertarian theory of journalism took root in England and the United States in the seventeenth century and arose in opposition to the authoritarian doctrine. Approval of the English Bill of Rights in 1689 laid the foundation for individual liberties. The concept of a libertarian press was drawn from the writings of John Stuart Mill, John Milton, John Locke and philosophical principles of rationalism and natural rights. Libertarianism means that humans, as rational beings, are able to distinguish between truth and falsehood. The American Bills of Rights a century later expanded libertarian principles to include freedom of the press. In the libertarian view, news media must have an independent and autonomous role to help discover truth and to place a check on government. Libertarian journalism must be free to express ideas without fear of government interference. The separation of journalism and government insures the right of all people with economic means to have access to news media. The media are controlled by “the self-righting process of truth” in a “free marketplace of ideas.” In other words, individuals search for truth from competing claims. The libertarian news media, for the most part, are privately owned and free to inform, criticize, entertain, and sell. However, they are barred from defamation, obscenity, indecency, and wartime sedition. Libertarian journalism tends to exist in multiparty political economies featuring free-market capitalism. The news media systems in countries like Germany, France, and Japan are typical examples.

Social responsibility theory is a modification of the libertarian notion. It was born in the United States in the 1940s, when increasing monopolistic conditions and questionable practices on the part of news media led to the advocacy of more moral restrictions on their freedom. The writings of the Commission on Freedom of the Press (the Hutchins Commission), the work of practitioners, as well as various news media codes of ethics formed the basis of the social responsibility concept. This theory differs from libertarianism in seeing the chief purpose of journalism as raising conflict to the plane of discussion rather than checking government. Under the social responsibility theory, everyone with something to say has the right to use news media. A socially responsible media is controlled by community opinion, consumer action, and professional ethics. Journalists must avoid serious invasion of privacy rights and vital social interests. Although the free news media are privately owned, government can take over to ensure public service. The social responsibility theory implies recognition by journalists that they must fulfill obligations to warrant their freedom. Those responsibilities are (a) servicing the political system by providing information, discussion, and debate on public affairs; (b) enlightening the public so as to make it capable of self-government; (c) safeguarding the rights of the individual by serving as a watchdog against government; (d) servicing the economic system, primarily in bringing together the buyers and sellers of goods and services through the medium of advertising; (e) providing entertainment; and (f) maintaining its own financial self-sufficiency so as to be free from the pressures of special interests. Social responsibility theory guides most journalism operating in the United States. Soviet communist theory of journalism stands at the other end of the spectrum. It flowed from the thoughts of Marx, Lenin, and Joseph Stalin with a mixture of Hegel and nineteenth-century Russian thinking. This theory is based on the premise that such ideas as rationalism and individual rights to know government business are unrealistic. Therefore, journalism in the Communist model functions to transmit governmental social policy rather than to search for truth. The press operates as a collective propagandist, agitator, and organizer to support the government and thus serve the people. Communist news media are considered integral parts of the state. They are controlled by the Communist party government apparatus. Within that system, self-criticism of failure to live up to Communist planning is encouraged, but journalists cannot criticize Party objectives. The Communist concept is an offshoot of authoritarianism but differs from its roots in several aspects. The Soviet news media model disapproves of private ownership, removes the profit motive, and emphasizes media as instruments of government. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, news media in North Korea and Cuba remain as typical examples of communist journalism in its traditional form.

Revisiting Four Theories

The four theories of journalism were revised and expanded when Ralph Lowenstein, a media scholar, added a new category based on news media ownership. Slightly different tittles were given to two of the four basic concepts proposed by Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm. Authoritarian and libertarian remained the same. Soviet communist was renamed as social authoritarian theory to remove the negative connotations of the original term and also to broaden its application. Social responsibility became social libertarian to be rid of the ambiguity in the original term and to reflect the roots of this theory in libertarianism. Social centrist was the new theory of journalism that institutes government or public ownership to assure the operational spirit of libertarianism.

In an attempt to broaden the social responsibility concept into a more active role, proponents of civic (or publicjournalism suggested that news media should engage audience members in reporting important civic issues. Journalists are encouraged to reach out to the public, to give voice to the people’s agenda, and to meet the needs of various social groups. Civic journalism moves beyond the role of a detached reporter in the marketplace of ideas to the role of a fair-minded participant in public life. Although the civic journalism concept has achieved only qualified success in the United States, it has been seen as a direct response to the call for socially responsible news media with a solid commitment to community service. The American civic journalism model has also been experimented with in other countries, including New Zealand.

Five Concepts

As the world’s news media adapt to changing social needs, new theories of journalism have emerged to update the basic model proposed in 1956. The Five Concepts typology, first introduced by media scholar William Hachten in 1981, is a major deviation from the Four Theories approach. Significant changes have been made to sort global journalism into five distinct theories: Western, revolutionary, developmental, authoritarian, and communist. The basic tenet of this classification is that differing perceptions about the nature and role of journalism reflect the values of sociopolitical systems and historical and cultural traditions of the nations within which it operates.

The Western concept combines elements of both libertarianism and social responsibility. The theory holds that a government should not interfere in the process of collecting and disseminating news. News media are independent of authority and exist outside government. Under the Western concept, the press has the right to report and comment on, as well as criticize government without restraints. To maintain its autonomy, news media must be financially strong and profitable. Meanwhile, the privately owned press system has obligations of public service that transcend moneymaking. The Western theory is practiced in democracies with market economies that have an established traditional of independent journalism. Examples of nations meeting these criteria include Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States.

The revolutionary concept is concerned with illegal and subversive communication, using news media to overthrow a government or wrest control from alien or rejected rulers. Historically, effective use of communication has been a part of every revolution. In the United States, for example, Thomas Paine used pamphlets to help inspire the rebellion against Britain. In his writings, Jefferson advocated and justified the people’s right to revolution. The theory of revolutionary journalism stemmed from Lenin’s ideas of utilizing a newspaper as a cover for a revolutionary organization. By definition, revolutionary news media are those of people who believe that the ruling government does not serve their interests. Revolutionary journalism generally functions to (a) end government monopoly on information, (b) organize insurgents, (c) destroy the legitimacy of the rulers, (d) bring down the alien or rejected rulers. The words of the Pravda in the 1917 Russian Revolution and the underground press in Nazi-occupied France were classic examples of revolutionary journalism. A contemporary case was the use of audiocassettes and photocopiers by supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini against the Shah’s regime in Iran in 1979.

The developmental concept assumes that news media can function as multipliers of efforts to promote social change. This theory is a mixture of social responsibility ideals, communist ideas, as well as resentments against the West by impoverished and media-poor nations. In its basic form, the developmental concept posits that individual rights are necessarily subordinate to the larger goals of nation-building. Therefore, all instruments of mass communication must be mobilized, directed, and controlled by the central government to serve national goals in economic development, political education, and eradication of illiteracy. Development journalism should support authority rather than criticize or challenge it. News media freedom can be restricted according to the development needs of the society. Since information is a scarce national resource, news media are state property and are used to further national development. Along the same line, a nation can claim a sovereign right to control both foreign journalists and the flow of news back and forth across its borders. Although the concept of development journalism was seen as an emerging pattern associated with the non-communist nations of the developing world, it appeared to be losing momentum by the mid 1990s. Good examples of developmental media can be found in Brazil, Ghana, Honduras, and Zimbabwe, among many others.

Authoritarian and communist concepts in Hachten’s classification of news media systems are similar to those of Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm in Four Theories of the Press. In the Five Concepts model, the developmental and communist theories of journalism are variations of the traditional authoritarianism. Within authoritarian societies, diversity of views is wasteful and irresponsible, while consensus is a sensible goal for journalism. Therefore, journalists generally exercise self-censorship and maintain the status quo. Therein lies a major difference between authoritarian and communist concepts. The communist news media system is planned and built as part of change and to help accomplish change. Another distinction is related to media ownership. Communist news media are state property as opposed to the privately owned press in the authoritarian model.

Revising Five Concepts

Several modifications of the Five Concepts typology have been postulated since the mid-1980s. Within the Western concept, media scholar Robert Picard identified democratic socialism along with social responsibility and libertarianism as coequal subcategories. The democratic socialist theory was drawn from a mixture of modern Marxist thoughts and the writings of classic liberal philosophers. The roles of democratic socialist journalism are to provide an avenue for expression of diverse voices and to promote democratic governance. News media are operated for the citizen’s use and for the protection of the citizen’s social, political, and economic rights. In a democratic socialist system, the media are instruments of the people and public utilities rather than tools of the state or privately owned institutions. To ensure the existence of news media plurality and the ability of citizens to access them, the state can intervene in media economics and ownership. Ultimately, this theory of journalism holds that ownership would be public and not-for-profit, through foundations, nonprofit corporations, journalist-oriented cooperations, and other collective organizations. Democratic socialist journalism lies somewhere between the social responsibility and developmental theories. Along the same vein, democratic participant theory represents an effort to expand the boundary of the Five Concepts to include an alternative journalism approach. Media theorist Denis McQuail emphasized the role of news media in supporting cultural pluralism at a grassroots level. Public participation and empowerment of pluralistic groups are central to democratic participant journalism. The theory contends that individual citizens and minority groups have a right to be served by news media according to their determination of need. Therefore, the organization and content of news media can be directly controlled by group members rather than the powers of state or industry. Meanwhile, democratic participant journalism systems may receive government subsidies and training to provide their own audiences with nonmainstream, local, small-scale, interactive, and participative news media forms. The democratic participant and democratic socialist concepts represent a reaction against the abuses of private media ownership as well as state control of news media. The two evolving theories of journalism emerged in twentieth-century Western Europe and are active in Scandinavian countries.

Two other concepts of alternative journalism reflect somewhat radical theoretical perspectives on the role of news media. One is emancipatory journalism, and the other is communitarian journalism. Emancipatory media theory calls for a reconceptualization of development journalism by charging news media with an activist role in social change. This theory requires bottom-up reporting in forms and formats that challenge and force oppressive structures to change. By disseminating the views and priorities for development of people at the grassroots level, emancipatory journalism empowers marginalized groups and mobilizes action against unequal power. Examples of emancipatory media can be found in, among other locations, rural areas of Bolivia, Uganda, and Zambia.

Meanwhile, the concept of communitarian journalism emphasizes the ethical imperative of news media to engage in dialogue with the public it serves. This antilibertarian theory urges journalists to abandon the role of neutral observer in order to help construct community identity. Under the communitarian view, news should be an agent of community formation, and the goal of reporting is not intelligence but a like-minded philosophy among the public. In some respects, the communitarian concept of journalism is reactionary to “mainstream” or “dominant” news media theory. This theory does not seem to have traveled far.

Three Movements

A new approach to theorizing the operation of the media in different social settings emerged in the 1980s when scholars challenged an ideological bias underlying the libertarian-authoritarian dichotomy. According to J. Herbert Altschull, all news media systems are agents of power, and beliefs about journalism in each system are held so passionately that they are not subject to rational or critical analysis. One system’s faith may be another’s folly. Therefore, the operation of a news media system can only be judged against the ideal values knowable for the specific society. In devising a value-free classification, Altschull conceptualized theories of journalism as three movements of a global symphony: market, Marxist, and advancing. The three movements differ in their journalistic purposes, articles of faith, and views on news media freedom.

Market journalism is assigned with the roles of (a) seeking truth, (b) being socially responsible, (c) informing the people in a nonpolitical way, (d) serving the people impartially, (e) supporting capitalism, and (f) being a watchdog of government. In the market movement, news media should be free of outside interference to serve the public’s right to know. Journalists seek to learn and present the truth and must report fairly and objectively. In the market views on news media freedom, journalists are free of all outside controls and not servile or manipulated by power. No national media policy is needed to ensure free journalism. The market movement links to the First or Western World.

Marxist journalism also seeks truth and social responsibility as defined by its own standard. Marxist media educate the people in a political way and serve them by demanding support for socialism. News media, as collective organizers, are assigned the purpose of molding views and changing behavior. In the Marxist system, journalism helps transform false consciousness and educate workers into class consciousness. News media should provide for the masses and facilitate effective change. Journalists are believed to report objectively about the realities of experience. The Marxist theory of journalism views news media as part of the government. Consequently, a national media policy is required to guarantee that journalism takes a correct form. A free journalist should report the opinions of all people, not only those of the rich. Moreover, a journalist is required to counter oppression. The Marxist movement corresponds to practice in much of the former Soviet Bloc, China, North Korea, and Cuba.

Advancing journalism is the third model of the Three Movements classification. The roles assigned to the advancing media can be compared to those of the Marxist movement, but with some variations. In an advancing society, the first purposes of journalism remain serving truth, being socially responsible, and educating people in a political way. However, advancing journalists serve the people, by seeking, in partnership with government, beneficial social change. In addition, news media must be instruments of peace. The advancing movement believes that news media are unifying forces that serve the interests of the people by avoiding divisive reporting. The advancing journalist is meant to be a part of two-way exchanges, not merely one-way flow of information from journalists to the masses. Proper journalism is participatory. Under the advancing theory, news media freedom is less important than the viability of the nation. A national media policy is needed to safeguard journalistic freedom. Meanwhile, free media are not much concerned with freedom of mere information. It is more important that journalists be assured freedom of conscience than that they be flooded with information. The advancing movement applies to much of the developing or Southern World.

Closely connected to the Three Movements are the three world perspectives outlined by journalism researchers L. John Martin and Anju Grover Chaudhary. They chose the political designations of First, Second, and Third World as the basis for classifying press systems and theorized the three perspectives from six functions of journalism: the concept of news; the social, political, and economic role of the media; the educational, persuasive, and opinion-making function; the entertainment function; press freedom; and media economics.


Since the mid-1950s, increasingly complex theoretical ideas have expressed what news media should do under certain social norms. Normative theories of journalism, organized from various perspectives, have supplied different criteria for evaluating and comparing news media systems. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the Four Theories model continued to exert an immense influence. Despite its oversimplified and value-laden view, the work has been widely cited in journalism and mass communication.

Changing media, political, and economic landscapes across the world have outstripped the Four Theories, however, as well as two later typologies—Five Concepts and Three Movements. There have been criticisms that existing theories of journalism were constrained by the ideology and historical circumstances of their inception. The concepts of communist and Marxist media, for example, have been mostly voided with the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the post–cold war world, a more flexible version of media theory is needed to cope with the differences between orthodox communism (as in Cuba or North Korea) and the “pragmatic market socialism” of China, Laos, or Vietnam. Along the same line, changes in media technology have made it almost impossible to match a theory of journalism and a type of society. In the era of globalization, the World Wide Web has linked people across borders, enabling them to seek, receive, and disseminate information via transnational media that are beyond state control. On the other hand, the Internet has also provided an easy means for even the smallest groups to produce their own media, thereby creating a fragmented audience—an indicator of a Balkanization of the larger society. In settings where vastly diverse news media no longer operate as one system with shared ideals and values, traditional theories of journalism may become irrelevant.