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Normative Theories of the Media: Journalism in Democratic Societies

Normative Theories of the Media: Journalism in Democratic Societies

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In this book, five leading scholars of media and communication take on the difficult but important task of explicating the role of journalism in democratic societies. Using Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm's classic Four Theories of the Press as their point of departure, the authors explore the philosophical underpinnings and the political realities that inform a normative approach to questions about the relationship between journalism and democracy, investigating not just what journalism is but what it ought to be.

The authors identify four distinct yet overlapping roles for the media: the monitorial role of a vigilant informer collecting and publishing information of potential interest to the public; the facilitative role that not only reports on but also seeks to support and strengthen civil society; the radical role that challenges authority and voices support for reform; and the collaborative role that creates partnerships between journalists and centers of power in society, notably the state, to advance mutually acceptable interests. Demonstrating the value of a reconsideration of media roles, Normative Theories of the Media provides a sturdy foundation for subsequent discussions of the changing media landscape and what it portends for democratic ideals.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252076183
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/16/2009
Series: History of Communication Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Clifford G. Christians is research professor of communications and the director of the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Theodore L. Glasser is a professor of communication at Stanford University. Denis McQuail is a professor emeritus of mass communication at the University of Amsterdam. Kaarle Nordenstreng is a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Tampere, Finland. Robert A. White is a professor of social sciences and communications at St. Augustine University of Tanzania.

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Normative Theories of the Media

By Clifford G. Christians Theodore L. Glasser Denis McQuail Kaarle Nordenstreng Robert A. White


Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03423-7

Chapter One

Beyond Four Theories of the Press

Since the 1960s a rich expansion of thought has taken place regarding normative theories of public communication, models of democracy, and the roles of journalism in democratic societies. The media world has become far more complicated, and the analysis is increasingly widespread. In this chapter we review American, European, and other perspectives as a basis for our own synthesis later in the chapter. The debate following the publication of Four Theories of the Press by the University of Illinois Press in 1956 provides a convenient starting point because that typology, so very controversial, stimulated a variety of contrasting models of media systems. Many important issues in journalism and democracy have been clarified over these five decades, and many original arguments have emerged.

The Debate Beginning in the 1950s

Four Theories of the Press, by Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm, was important above all for its typological thinking. As spelled out in the subtitle, it introduced "The Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility and Soviet Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do." These four concepts were the authors' response to their basic question: Why do the mass media appear in widely different forms and serve different purposes in different countries? They argued that "the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates. Especially, it reflects the system of social control whereby the relations of individuals and institutions are adjusted" (Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm 1956, 1–2).

Such a thesis makes sense, and in its time Four Theories provided a welcome stimulus to reflection about the media's role in society by suggesting that press systems are linked to different political systems and philosophies. While it was customary in the social sciences to take a value-free stance, leaving aside the question of social norms, these authors oriented the new field of mass communication toward an explicit analysis of how the press relates to society in terms of political values, professional ethics, and intellectual history. The method of contrasting different paradigms of press and society was not only useful theoretically but provided an important didactic tool for training journalists.

In fact, with the growth of the media since World War II there was inevitably a need to articulate the roles and tasks of the mass media in society, including the relationship between the media and politics. But in this respect, the emerging scholarship had little to offer, and therefore even a casual collection of essays found a niche and became in its way a classic. The book filled an obvious intellectual gap between the academic study of communication and the professional practice of journalism (see Nerone 2004). A bestseller, it was reprinted more times and translated into more languages than perhaps any other textbook in the field.

As suggested by the "beyond" in the title of this chapter, however, this classic has been challenged. Many have pointed out its oversimplified framing of history and its analytical inadequacy. Its political and cultural bias has been recognized since the 1960s, especially by critical approaches to communication research. Four Theories was a child of the Cold War era, when the world was deeply divided between the capitalist West, the socialist East, and the underdeveloped South. The fall of Soviet Communism, increasing independence in the global South, and new academic awareness among scholars have called into question the type of normative thinking that Four Theories reflected. Consequently, the question today is no longer whether or not the classic is passé but what is the best way to get beyond it. As Hallin and Mancini starkly put it, "It is time to give it a decent burial and move on to the development of more sophisticated models based on real comparative analysis" (2004, 10).

While the book's basic question and thesis were valuable, its four theories typology turned out to be a poor response to the authors' own challenge. A useful eye-opener in this respect was provided by a group of scholars from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the three authors of this book once worked. Last Rights (Nerone 1995), published by the University of Illinois Press in 1995, revisited Four Theories by critically assessing its relevance in a post–Cold War world. As the editor pointed out, "Four Theories does not offer four theories: it offers one theory with four examples" (1995, 18). "It defines the four theories from within one of the four theories—classical liberalism.... It is specifically in classical liberalism that the political world is divided into individual versus society or the state" (21). "Four Theories and classical liberaliism assume that we have freedom of the press if we are free to discuss political matters in print without state suppression" (22).

In a wider perspective, Last Rights clarified the moment in intellectual history at which Four Theories was written: "By the mid–twentieth century, liberalism had reached a philosophical impasse. And, while political theory has moved beyond the impasse of liberalism, mainstream normative press theory in the United States has not" (Nerone 1995, 4). The stalemate was mainly caused by the fact that it was no longer feasible to view individuals as atoms, with natural rights, at a time when "politics became the stuff of institutions rather than of individuals" (5). Moreover, the press had become an institution, separate from the people, and "it became more intelligent to talk about the public's rights—the right to know, the right to free expression—rather than the press's rights. The press had responsibilities; the public had rights" (6).

One crucial chapter in intellectual history that gave rise to Four Theories was the Commission on Freedom of the Press in the mid-1940s. Known as The Hutchins Commission, it elaborated on the media's idea of social responsibility later adopted by Siebert et al. as the third of their four theories. The Commission's report A Free and Responsible Press (1947) built a philosophical and moral foundation for the idea that the press owed a responsibility to society. It argued that democracy depended on a flow of trustworthy information and a diversity of relevant opinions. The report in fact elaborated on the idea of social responsibility that the media already subscribed to. The authors of Four Theories later adopted this idea as their third theory—that of the social responsibility of the press. One could argue that, if liberalism in general had reached a philosophical impasse by the mid–twentieth century, this theory was a last attempt to revive liberalism in the field of journalism and mass communication.

One of the lasting contributions of Four Theories has been the consolidation of thought regarding the media's responsibility to society. Several books have attempted to remedy Four Theories' defects by adding typological dimensions or presenting alternative typologies, but none of them managed to gain the acceptance of Four Theories. Nevertheless, each new formulation brought out important dimensions and provided valuable insights for a new synthesis.

Other Proposals

Last Rights helped deconstruct Four Theories as typology, scholarship, and ideology. Such a critical analysis was indeed a logical first step for anyone who wished to move beyond Four Theories. Yet there are a number of other typologies worth recalling, regardless of their relationship to the four theories. In fact, the European examples we list below have little or no kinship with the American four theories, and therefore it would be misleading to view the four theories as a universal baseline. On the other hand, several typologies have been proposed, especially in the United States, to complement and revise the original four theories, as follows.


The first American among the revisionists was John Merrill, best known for his Imperative of Freedom (1974). He criticized particularly social responsibility theory and related notions of people's right to know, the right of access to the media, and the press as the fourth branch of government. For him these were "libertarian myths" that limited true freedom of media and journalists; his thinking boiled down to a dichotomy between authoritarianism/totalitarianism and liberalism/anarchy (1974, 42). This ultralibertarian position led Merrill to advocate nonutilitarian (Kantian) ethics and "existential journalism" (1977).

With his colleague Ralph Lowenstein, Merrill elaborated press philosophies into four types: authoritarian with negative government controls, social-centralist with positive government controls, libertarian without any government controls, and social-libertarian with minimal government controls (Merrill and Lowenstein 1979, 186). Lowenstein refined this classification in the second edition of their textbook, adding a fifth philosophy, social-authoritarian (Merrill and Lowenstein 1979, 164). Lowenstein and Merrill (1990) gave a final shape to Merrill's typology but did not manage to replace his original four theories as a canonic way of thinking about the media's role in society.

In 1981, William Hachten proposed a revision of the original four theories within the context of the global media debate of the 1970s. The World News Prism (1981) retained the authoritarian and Communist press concepts but combined the libertarian and social responsibility variants into an overall Western concept. In addition, he introduced two new categories: revolutionary and developmental. A revolutionary role was played by the early Pravda as well as various samizdat outlets—from mimeographed newsletters to audiocassettes and email—that challenged the prevailing political order. A developmental role was obvious to everyone who was aware of the Third World realities (Hachten had experienced this in Africa). Accordingly, his typology consisted of five dimensions; but his 1992 updated edition of The World News Prism accounted for the collapse of Soviet Communism, suggesting that we might be back to four types: authoritarian, Western, revolutionary, and developmental (this typology is retained in the latest edition, Hachten and Scotton 2007).

Later in the 1980s, Robert Picard added one more variant to earlier typologies: democratic socialist (1985). His source of inspiration was Western Europe and especially Scandinavia, where he observed that state intervention in media economics was exercised to ensure the survival of free media "as instruments of the people, public utilities through which the people's aspirations, ideas, praise, and criticism of the state and society may be disseminated" (70). Picard's democratic socialist theory along with the original libertarian and social responsibility theories are three forms of Western philosophy; whereas the rest of the world were covered by Hachten's developmental and revolutionary concepts as well as the original authoritarian and Communist theories (69).

Another notable American author is Herbert Altschull, whose Agents of Power (1984; 1995) presented not just a revision of the original four theories but an alternative paradigm based on the view that all systems of the news media are agents of those who exercise political and economic power (the first of his "seven laws of journalism"; 1984, 298; 1995, 440). He divided the world of media systems into three, following the traditional lines of First, Second, and Third World: market or Western nations, Marxist or communitarian nations, and advancing or developing nations. In these political regions, journalists tend to hold different views of press freedom and the purposes of journalism.

A similar tripartite division of the world was introduced by John Martin and Anju Chaudhary (1983) in their classification of mass media systems as Western, Communist, and Third World. While these were ideological systems with normative undertones, their concept of a media system was an analytical composite of functional elements such as the nature of news and the role of the media in education and entertainment. In fact, this work stands as an illuminating example of blending the two levels—normative and analytical—a blending that was present already in Four Theories and became typical in talking about media systems.

In short, American attempts to go beyond the original four theories make up a fairly rich reservoir of ideas and pedagogically useful typologies (for a summary of these revisions, see Lambeth 1995; Mundt 1991). These various proposals clearly suggest the limitations of Four Theories, but it has enjoyed considerable respect and has been widely used until the present day. For example, a standard undergraduate textbook of the 1990s, Modern Mass Media (Merrill, Lee, and Friedlander 1994), still listed the original four theories in a chapter on press and government. A fresh textbook, Mass Communication: Living in a Media World, sets out "to fully integrate twenty-first-century developments into the text in a way that older books cannot" (Hanson 2008, xxii). But it presents media ideals around the world according to Four Theories, while noting Last Rights and adding "development theory" as the fifth one (496–503).


The first notable European proposal for classifying contemporary media systems was offered in the early 1960s by Raymond Williams, a British cultural historian and classic source for critical media scholarship. His landmark Communications (1962) suggested a typology of four systems within the context of the British controversy over culture and communication: authoritarian, paternal ("an authoritarian system with a conscience"), commercial, and democratic. It was an openly normative typology, highlighting the necessity and feasibility of democratic communication "not only as an individual right, but a social need, since democracy depends on the active participation of all its members" (Williams 1962, 93; see also Sparks 1993). Others followed, including Peter Golding and Philip Elliott (1979), as well as James Curran (1991a,b). Williams's useful classification did not achieve larger recognition among these, nor did they subsequently elaborate it.

The German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas provided another important dimension of normative theory in public communication with his proposal that the best foundation for the morality of public life in today's highly pluralistic societies is to be found in a theory of communicative action (1990). His concept of the public sphere became an increasingly influential theoretical framework, following the translation into English of his classic The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989). Briefly put, public sphere refers to the space of civil society between state institutions and citizens. In democratic societies, it should provide a more or less autonomous and open arena for public debate and the formation of public opinion along pluralistic lines. Access of all parties to the public sphere should be unhindered, and freedom of assembly, association, and expression are guaranteed. Habermas concluded that within the public sphere the means of public communication (initially by way of the political press) have played an essential part in maintaining diversity and association as well as in providing vital channels of communication and control between people and their rulers.

Habermas's position is open to criticism for idealizing the condition of free debate promoted by the press and for ignoring the political biases of the mass media. Despite this, the notion of the public sphere and the linked idea of civil society offers a framework for analyzing how the media gain centrality and influence in contemporary public debate (see, for instance, Dahlgren 1995; Keane 1995).

Much of the normative theorizing about the media did not attempt to link the question of systematic differences in the media to the types of social systems in which they operate, as Four Theories had done. Four Theories examined historically the progression from autocracy to democracy and took note of a world still much divided by state-sponsored ideologies of nationalism, Communism, colonialism, and even fascism in Spain and Portugal until the 1970s. European revisionists focused more on divisions internal to media systems within the boundaries of states, emphasizing differences between forms that were commercial or publicly owned, populist or elitist, and serving democratic or ruling-class purposes.


Excerpted from Normative Theories of the Media by Clifford G. Christians Theodore L. Glasser Denis McQuail Kaarle Nordenstreng Robert A. White Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Beyond Four Theories of the Press....................3
2. Evolution of Normative Traditions....................37
3. Characteristics of Normative Theory....................65
4. The Principles and Practice of Democracy....................91
5. Roles of News Media in Democracy....................114
6. The Monitorial Role....................139
7. The Facilitative Role....................158
8. The Radical Role....................179
9. The Collaborative Role....................196
10. Media Roles under Challenge....................221

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