Skip to main content

2.1 Normative media theory

Media theory refers to the complex of social-political-philosophical principles which organize ideas about the relationship between media and society. Within this is a type of theory called `normative theory', which is concerned with what the media ought to be doing in society rather than what they actually do. In general, the dominant ideas about the obligations of mass media will be consistent with other values and arrangements in a given society. According to Siebert et al (1956) in their book Four Theories of the Press, "the press takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates" (pp.1-2). The press and other media, in their view, will reflect the "basic beliefs and assumptions that the society holds". In the western liberal tradition, this refers to matters such as freedom, equality before the law, social solidarity and cohesion, cultural diversity, active participation, and social responsibility. Different cultures may have different principles and priorities.

Although normative theory of the press is now in a considerable state of uncertainty (see Nerone, 1995), not least because of changes in the media and the rise of new media forms, we can still identify certain broad traditions of thought about the rights and responsibilities of media in society and the degree to which `society' may legitimately intervene to protect the public interest. The main relevant variants can be described as follows:

Authoritarian theory (which applies to early pre-democratic forms of society and also to present- day undemocratic or autocratic social systems). In this view, all media and public communication are subject to the supervision of the ruling authority and expression or opinion which might undermine the established social and political order can be forbidden. Although this `theory' contravenes rights of freedom of expression, it can be invoked under extreme conditions.

Free press theory (most fully developed in the United States of America, but applying elsewhere) proclaims complete freedom of public expression and of economic operation of the media and rejects any interference by government in any aspect of the press. A well- functioning market should resolve all issues of media obligation and social need.

Social responsibility theory (found more in Europe and countries under European influence) is a modified version of free press theory placing greater emphasis upon the accountability of the media (especially broadcasting) to society. Media are free but they should accept obligations to serve the public good. The means of ensuring compliance with these obligations can either be through professional self-regulation or public intervention (or both).

Development media theory (applying in countries at lower levels of economic development and with limited resources) takes various forms but essentially proposes that media freedom, while desirable, should be subordinated (of necessity) to the requirements of economic, social and political development.

Alternative media theory. From a social critical perspective the dominant media of the established society are likely to be inadequate by definition in respect of many groups in society and too much under the control of the state and other authorities or elites. This type of theory favours media that are close to the grass-roots of society, small-scale, participative, active and non-commercial. Their role is to speak for and to the social out-groups and also to keep radical criticism alive.

Often, the media system of a given country will have a mixture of theoretical elements and media types, displaying neither absolute freedom nor absolute subordination to the state or ruling power. Hallin and Mancini (2004) have argued that we should forget about normative theories and look more closely at actual arrangements connecting media with society. They propose a typology of relations between the media system and the political system, based on a comparative examination of contemporary national societies. In this view there are three types or variants, each with different implications for the role and obligations of the media in society:

  • a Liberal model in which the media operate according to the principles of the free market; without formal connections between media and politics and with minimal state intervention;
  • a Democratic Corporatist model in which commercial media coexist with media tied to organized social and political groups and the state has a small but active role;
  • a Polarized Pluralist model, with media integrated into party politics, weaker commercial media and a strong role for the state.

As with the theories outlined previously, these models are also `ideal types' and in practice societies have a mixture of the elements outlined. Public service broadcasting is found in two forms in the second and third models as, respectively, either a neutralized and politically impartial organization or as politicized in some way, usually with division in terms of the political spectrum. In the fully Liberal model, there may be little or no place for public service broadcasting.