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Normative theories (of the media) MCOM 310 Mass Communication Studies
Normative theory • Descriptive statements are falsifiable statements that attempt to describe reality. • By contrast, normative statements affirm how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad. • Normative theories of the press: Ideal views of how journalism/ media ought to, or are expected to, operate – what is desirable in relation to both structure and performance): “Journalists/ journalism should or could do this or that. ”
Structure and performance • Structure – e. g. freedom from the state, multiplicity of different channels. • Performance – e. g. how the media carry out their chosen or allotted informative or entertaining tasks. Conventions, genres, professional guidelines and ethical rules, which apply to what the media do.
Four theories of the press The Four Theories of the Press (Schramm, Siebert, Peterson. 1956) Basic theories: • Authoritarian • Libertarian Variations: • Social responsibility • Soviet communist
Mc. Quail’s additions Additions (Denis Mc. Quail. Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction): • Development • Democratic-participant
Authoritarian theory • Applies to authoritarian societies, but can surface in less authoritarian societies (particularly in times of war, terrorism) • Depends on the medium – TV subject to greater control in some countries • Propaganda model of Chomsky and Herman – is US media authoritarian? (Model alleges systemic biases in the mass media and seeks to explain them in terms of structural economic causes. )
Authoritarian assumptions • Press should do nothing to undermine vested power and interests; • Press should be subordinate to vested power and authority; • Press should avoid acting in contravention of prevailing moral and political values; • Censorship justified in the application of these principles; • Criminalisation of editorial attacks on vested power, deviations from official policy, violation of moral codes.
• Media as instrument/ mouthpiece to publicise and propagandise government ideology and actions. • Absolute power of state versus subservience of the individual – press ‘freedom’ a right vested in the state. • Examples: Fascist regimes, some African countries, communist countries? Aspects of apartheid SA?
Libertarian theory • Modernity: Rise of democracy, religious freedom, expansion of economic freedom, philosophical climate of the Enlightenment • Undermined authoritarianism – emphasis on personal freedom and democracy • The idea that people are rational – can distinguish between truth and falsehood, and between good and evil.
• Classical liberal perspective: • Free market as foundation of free media; • Freedom to publish without prior restriction – independence from government; • Public has access to wide diversity of opinion (only limitation on freedom to publish is public willingness to pay); • Market-based diversity promotes public rationality – free marketplace of ideas and information as a self-righting mechanism, minimises bias and exposes weak arguments and evidence.
• Another strand in liberal tradition: • Media as representative agency (‘Fourth Estate’ alongside executive, legislative and judicial authorities)) or as a watchdog protecting the public (individuals rights), overseeing the state. • Watchdog reveals abuses in the exercise of state authority… this role overrides all other functions of the media and dictates the form in which the media should be organised, i. e. the free market. • “The best stories are those that afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, the ones that the people of power do not want told. ” Peter Beaumont and John Sweeney, The Observer • But, can muckraking journalism co-exist with objective journalism?
• Objectivity: As newspapers gradually lost their party affiliations, journalists worked to establish their independence as searchers after “objective truth”. • Independence from government control and influence – if media is subject to public regulation it will lose its bite as a watchdog. • Press is source of information and platform for expression of a range of divergent opinions; enables people to monitor government and form ideas about policy.
• Curran: But, society seen as an aggregation of individuals – media’s representative role conceived primarily in terms of articulating public opinion, which is the sum of individual opinion. How should media relate to representative structures as distinct from individuals – role of media in mediating class and other conflict in society? Also, little account of how power is exercised through non-state structures, like property and patriarchy. • Is a free press and end in itself, a means to an end, or an absolute right? • Freedom can be abused. Absolute freedom is anarchy. Mill: The freedom of the individual constrained by the freedom of other individuals. (My freedom ends where yours begins).
• Boundaries of freedom defined in such a way that they do not infringe the rights of the individual. • Abolition of censorship; but, also the introduction of press laws designed to protect individual rights (protection of reputation, privacy, moral development of individuals or groups, security of the state) – could override the right of the press’s freedom to publish.
• Assumptions: • Press should be free from any external censorship; • Publication and distribution should be accessible to any individual or group with a permit or license; • Attacks on governments or parties should not be punishable; • No coercion to publish anything; • Freedom of access to information.
Social responsibility theory • Hutchins Commission, 1947 – reaffirmed the principles of freedom/ independence but added to them the notion of social responsibility. • Media operate in capitalist economy, but some believe the market can function benignly (not just in the interests of shareholders but of all people). • Premises (Mc. Quail): • Media have important function to fulfil in society (support democratic political principles); • Media are under obligation to fulfil their social functions (transmission of information and creation of a forum for different viewpoints); • Independence of media emphasised in relation to their responsibility towards society; • Media should meet certain standards.
• Solutions to the problem (of reconciling freedom with responsibility): • Regulation • Promotion of political and cultural pluralism – independent public institutions for control of broadcasting (e. g. ICASA); • Balance of public and private ownership • Professionalism: • Codes of conduct; • Training and continuing development of professionalism, to advance and nurture balanced and impartial news presentation.
• More principles (Mc. Quail): • Media should accept responsibilities towards society; • Media should fulfil responsibilities by setting professional standards with regards to the supply of information and the truth, accuracy, objectivity and balance of their reporting; • Media should apply self-regulation; • Media should avoid publicising information that can lead to crime, violence or social disruption, as well as information that can offend ethnic or religious minorities; • Media collectively should represent all social groups and reflect the diversity of society by giving people access to a variety of viewpoints and opportunity to react to them. • Society entitled to high standards and intervention justifiable if the media fail to meet these standards.
Soviet communist press theory • Western notions of freedom of press rejected by Soviet bloc as being fundamentally ‘unfree’ because Western media are controlled by capitalist economic interests (prevent them from publishing the Marxist truth). • Communist press – no profit motive. But, did this mean it did not foreground special, elite interests in Soviet society?
• Assumptions: • Media should act in the interests of and be controlled by the working class; • Media should not be under private control; • Media should perform positive functions for society, such as socialisation (to make people conform to desirable norms), education, the supply of information, motivation and mobilisation of the masses; • Media should respond to the desire and needs of their recipients;
• More assumptions: • Society has right to use censorship and other legal measures to prevent and punish antisocial publication; • Media should reflect complete and objective view of world and society in terms of Marxist-Leninist principles; • Media should support communist movements everywhere. • After fall of Soviet Bloc, is this relevant? What about China? Cuba? Parts of Africa?
A brief critique of libertarian and social responsibility theories A political critique: • Journalism in capitalist societies functions in the interests not of society as a whole, but of dominant groups and classes. • Concepts like free press, democracy, the public interest, objectivity, neutrality seen as myths. • All research processes – including journalism – seen as value-laden and methodological decisions political.
• “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ” Paulo Freire • Concentration of ownership and control of media (lack of diversity), and the declining vitality of publicly funded media/cultural institutions like public broadcasters (due to privatisation).
• Other problems with modern media: • • Lack of democracy within media organisations; Governmental secrecy; Institutionalised racist and patriarchal codes; Commodification of culture: • Are we being addressed as citizens or as consumers? Shift away from involving people in societies as political citizens of nation states towards involving them as consumption units in a globalised corporate world.
Journalists and objectivity • Can journalists transcend their own subjectivity in accounting for the facts? • Does such a demand rest on plausible philosophical assumptions about the nature of, and relations between, perception, the external world, facts and values?
The biases of objectivity • Theodore Glasser: As a set of beliefs, objectivity is rooted in a positivistic view of the world – a commitment to external, observable, and retrievable facts. • Such an ideology promotes three kinds of bias.
1. Bias against the watchdog role of the media in favour of the status quo. To remain value neutral, only news sources with impeccable credentials (invariably prominent members of society) are quoted. The democratic process requires the participation of ordinary citizens as much as those who are prominent.
2. Bias against independent thinking. Journalists have to remain impartial and value neutral – therefore no longer the need nor the opportunity to develop a critical perspective from which to assess the events, the issues, the personalities he or she is assigned to cover.
3. Bias against the journalist’s assumption of responsibility for what is reported. News seen to exist “out there” (independent of the reporter), so journalists can’t be held responsible for it. The day’s news is viewed as something journalists are compelled to report, not something they are responsible for creating. Objectivity in journalism effectively erodes the very foundation on which rests a responsible press.
• “News is never a mere recording or reporting of the world ‘out there’ but a synthetic, value-laden account which carries within it dominant assumptions and ideas of the society within which it is produced. ” Theodore Glasser
Critique of “professionalism” • Professionalism critiqued as a rhetorical strategy to hide journalism’s inherent prosystemic bias. • Professionalism implies standards and procedures, which means journalists tend to act as responsible members of the political establishment, upholding the dominant political perspective.
Critique of public broadcasting “Perhaps in no other country does broadcasting hold such a privileged position as opinion leader as in Britain. When ‘information’ is conveyed on the BBC with such professional gravitas, it is more likely to be believed. Possessing highly professional talent, the illusion of impartiality and an essentially liberal ethos, Britain’s ‘public service broadcasting’ has become a finely crafted and infinitely adaptable instrument of state propaganda and censorship. ” John Pilger
Chomsky’s Propaganda Model • Traditional theorists see propaganda as being a useful conceptual tool to apply to media products of totalitarian dictatorships while applicable to the media of Western democracies only in exceptional periods (war). • But, Chomsky and Herman argue that the propaganda function is a permanent feature of Western media systems.
• The powerful elite “fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear and think about and to manage public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns”. • Journalists’ exalted claims to be working as the noble Fourth Estate are rhetoric. Media practices do not reflect a genuine public spiritedness but rather a concern to boost sales or improve ratings. The increasing media emphasis on infotainment has accompanied the depoliticising of civil society.