Syndicate content

World Press Freedom Day 2008: The Press, Politics, and Public Opinion

Antonio Lambino's picture

Photo Credit: UNESCOOn May 2, a day before World Press Freedom Day 2008, I received an e-mail message from Internews Network, an NGO that specializes in media development around the world. The message promotes a new public service announcement (PSA) featuring Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking on behalf of a group called The Elders, which includes, among others, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan. The advocacy message of the PSA is encapsulated in the following sentence: “Think of a world where everybody is afraid to speak out, then think of a world where no one is afraid to speak up.”  
As Robinson continues to talk about the right to expression and access to information enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, images of people working in media in developing countries are shown, creating a strong “visual-verbal argument”, linking Robinson’s words about Article 19 and the role of media in promoting the rights contained therein.
A day before receiving the e-mail, I attended a public presentation of the results of a multi-nation poll on media freedom at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.  Entitled “Media Freedom around the World”, poll results were presented by Steven Kull, director of and the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Kull said the overall finding from the 20 nation study is that majorities in all nations polled -- China, Iran, Nigeria, Mexico, South Korea, the United States, and France, among others -- support the principle of press freedom (defined as “media [being] free to publish news and ideas without government control”). However, while supporting media freedom in general, majority of publics in a few countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia, were of the opinion that “government should have the right to prevent the media from publishing things that it thinks will be politically destabilizing.”  In sum, Kull said that we can claim majorities of publics from various countries support a free media, with half wanting even more freedom, notwithstanding a few caveats (click here to access full report).
With all the attention these important global players were placing on the roles of the press and the news media in polities around the world, last Saturday morning, on World Press Freedom Day itself, I dusted off my copy of Four Theories of the Press by Siebert et al., a very influential book during its time (first published in 1956 but now considered outdated, e.g., see Nerone et al., 1995) and a seminal contribution to the comparative study of the press. In the introduction, the authors state the overall argument of the book, “… the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates... We believe that an understanding of these aspects of society is basic to any systematic understanding of the press” (pp. 1-2). So the book argues that social and political structures determine the type of press that develops in a country. Half true, because we can also cite evidence of influence manifesting the other way, i.e., the press and news media helping to determine social and political realities. 

Internews, with the help of Mary Robinson, has argued for the role of the press in supporting rights to information and expression. Similarly, in Four Theories of the Press, Siebert et al. claim that under the libertarian theory, “the press is conceived of as a partner in the search for truth” (p. 3). Other scholars have argued for the influence of political and social structures on the press/media system, although they have also posited influence going the other way. The missing piece, in my mind, is accounting for the effect public opinion may have on social and political structures as well as the press and other media. As's multi-nation poll on media freedom demonstrates, global publics support the principle of a free press, with a few caveats. But more than half of the 20 nations polled have consistently received low scores on press freedom indicators (e.g., Freedom House's Freedom of the Press 2008). 

Every year, World Press Freedom Day would be a good time to check whether updated public opinion data are available on cross-national attitudes toward press/media freedom and compare figures with press/media freedom indicators. Now that we can measure public attitudes cross-nationally at increasingly lower cost and higher validity and reliability, I suspect that over time, we will find evidence of public opinion acting as an influential force driving the emergence of new types of news media systems around the world.

Photo Credit: UNESCO


Submitted by Larry on
Great post, Antonio. I find the dynamics of public opinion and media very interesting. It is difficult for me to discern which is in service to the other in the US. The libertarian model you mention sounds like a worthy ideal, yet I don't normally conceive of any political structures as being "in search of truth" as science, philosophy or religion pursues truth in the physical, relational and ontological sense. Is the author using a more traditional meaning in his use of politics or political structures?

Submitted by Antonio on
Thanks for posting, Larry! I think the authors of Four Theories argue that from a libertarian perspective, the press is a partner "in search of truth." In their view, this is a reflection of certain types of political/social structures, but it is the press that is the partner, not the structures. Following many other scholars, I then contend that this relationship is two-way, that is, the media also influence societal/political structures -- and that public opinion has an integral role in all of this. What do you think? Thanks again! Tony

Submitted by Larry on
I agree that media does influence socio/political structures. In my view, public opinion is important and is experienced most through it's dynamic relationship with media in the following ways: 1) Media as a force in influencing public opinion. The story of oppression, silence and hostility in media outlets have been successful in catalyzing previously disinterested or unaware parties to engage in socio/political discourse and political action, especially in places that allow that type of participation. 2) Blogs and other internet forums are being taken seriously by traditional news services and media. This, to me, suggests that public opinion has found another way of being heard. When public opinion differs from media portrayals, which I think it often does, the expression of public opinion suffers and becomes virtually unheard. For instance, when looking at popular American movies in 2007 I would not expect to find a mirror of traditional family values despite polls suggesting that it is of importance to Americans. However, climate change would be an example of a media movement that shifted public opinion and has become a topic of political discussion. Do you see public opinion as having a more independent or influential voice than this?

Submitted by Anne on
This is a great discussion. It seems to me that there is a lot of empirical evidence showing that it is usually the media agenda that moves public opinion, rarely the other way round. For instance, Iyengar & Simon show in a famous study* that television news coverage of the Gulf War changed the public’s evaluation of then President George Bush (Sr). Before the media started covering the war, people mostly cared about crime and the economy and rated the President's overall performance based on their impression of how the economy was doing (which wasn’t good). When the war coverage started, the conflict immediately became the no.1 issue of concern for the public, and Bush’s foreign policy performance became the main criteria that people used to assess him (which improved his ratings significantly). Here we have the media influencing the public in terms of what to think about (agenda setting) as well as in terms of how to think about the President (priming). There are other studies with less dramatic examples that also show that when the media agenda changes, the public agenda will follow with a certain time lag. I’m afraid it is rather rare that the media follows public opinion, but fortunately it seems to happen, and increasingly so. Larry, your example about blogs setting the agenda for mass media is a very good one. From a normative democratic theory point of view, public opinion should be the driving force in a state: Citizens should tell the government what to do, possibly through media channels, but it should not be the media that tells citizens what to demand from their governments. As David Hume said: “It is (…) on opinion only that government is founded.” When you say, Larry, that public opinion withers and dies when it diverges from media portrayals, it would follow that it is “on the media only that government is founded.” A drastic notion, but I’m sometimes wondering whether there is more truth to it than we might care for. I'm wondering whether there can be *public* opinion without the media - how would the opinion become public? Assuming that *public* goes beyond small groups of people that are in direct contact with each other. French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, for instance, said that historically public opinion was only possible after the advent of the printing press. Before the press, there were scattered local opinions, and only printing made them public. So if the media does not take up what people think – is there any public opinion at all? I’m interested in what you think about this, although I admit this might only be a thought experiment. By the way, Antonio: To my knowledge the big US opinion surveys do not regularly ask about people’s attitudes toward press freedom. If I’m correct (and please correct me if I’m not), isn’t that interesting? Large international surveys such as the World Value Survey do ask about it, but it’s difficult to find continuous data in the US.

*Iyengar, S., & Simon, A. (1993). News coverage of the gulf crisis and public opinion: A study of agenda-setting, priming and framing. Communication Research, 20(3), 265-383.

Submitted by Antonio on
Hi, Larry. In response to your question, I did a post entitled "Influencing the Influential" on public opinion's potential role in a multi-platform media environment. Would be happy to continue our conversation. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! Tony

Add new comment