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Seductive normative concepts

More than six decades ago, Siebert, Peterson and Schramm summed up the foundational question of media systems theory admirably succinctly in seven, one-syllable words: ‘Why is the press as it is?’ (1956: 1). Their confident answer was that the nature and behaviour of the media is determined by the political rationales and philosophy that guide their respective social systems.Their analysis later came in for extensive criticism for being ideologically rooted, conceptually flawed and far too idealistic and simplistic (Nerone, 1995; Curran and Park, 2000; Hallin and Mancini, 2004; Christians et

Siebert et al. categorized media systems into four normative camps, as is evident in the full title of their work, Four Theories of the Press: The Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility and Soviet Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do (1956).They provided a clear indication of their intention in this title - to map ‘concepts of what the press should be and do’.They took a historical approach that traced various political philosophies and how they conceived of the role of the media and its relationship with the state. Their theories of the media were, in substance, based on a classification of political systems.

A number of other normative theories of media systems followed, as enumerated in Nordenstreng’s account (1997). Merrill and Lowenstein proposed a four-part typology in 1971: Authoritarian, with negative government control; Socialcentralist, with positive government control; Libertarian, without any government controls; and Social-libertarian, with minimal government controls. They later added a fifth category, Social-authoritarian. Hachten’s five-part classification in 1981 consisted of Authoritarian, Communist, Western (combining Siebert et al’s libertarian and social responsibility theories), Revolutionary and Developmental media systems.

Picard (1985) brought another model to the mix - the Democratic socialist model, based on the relationship between the state and the media in northern European countries. In his view, the media of the Western world could be described as subscribing to the Libertarian, Social responsibility or Democratic socialist models, while the rest of the world was covered by a mix of Siebert et al.’s Authoritarian and Communist models and Hachten’s Developmental and Revolutionary models. Altschull (1995) proposed a different internationally comparative basis for understanding media systems, corresponding to the concept of the First, Second and Third Worlds or, as he calls them, the Market-oriented, Marxist and Developing countries. On this basis, he proposed a three-fold classification of Market, Communitarian and Advancing media in an attempt to eliminate valueladen terminology.

In addition to these American variations, Nordenstreng (1997: 101) reminded us of the typology of four communication systems devised in the 1960s by the British cultural historian Raymond Williams: Authoritarian, Paternal (‘an authoritarian system with a conscience’), Commercial and Democratic. The most prominent European scholar in the field, Denis McQuail for his part adopted Siebert et Mass Communication Theory (1994), but was dropped in subsequent editions because he felt media systems theory was not adequately explanatory or descriptive:

While attempts are still made to improve the original typification of press theories [...], the goal of formulating consistent and coherent ‘theories of the press’ in this way is bound to break down sooner or later. This is partly because the theories formulated are more about societies than the media. |...] It also partly stems from the complexity and incoherence of media systems and thus the impossibility of matching a press theory with a type of society.

(McQuail, 2005a: 178)

Nordenstreng, meanwhile, following the Polish scholar Karol Jakubowicz (1990), drew a distinction between the ‘ideal’ and ‘real’ levels of media theory, separating the normative approach, which has ‘usually been taken for granted, without questioning its foundations’, from the media sociology approach, which describes ‘the real role and impact of media in society’ (Nordenstreng, 1997: 106). He proposed a ‘new beginning’, with a typology of five normative ‘paradigms’ that often coexist in real-world media systems: the Liberal-individualist, Social responsibility, Critical, Administrative and Cultural negotiation paradigms.

This was a prelude to a cooperative project, Normative Theories of the Media (Christians et al., 2009), proposing a typology of four traditions seen as the ‘most appropriate for describing and evaluating a complete media system at a given historical period’: the Corporatist, Libertarian, Social responsibility and Citizen participation traditions. Each of these ‘paradigmatic traditions’ represents an internally coherent set of values that have developed in specific historical and political contexts. They are avowedly normative in their approach and are linked to models of democracy and the role of journalists in society.

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