News and Democracy in Different Media Systems

Many decades ago, Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm (1959) posed a question related to the concepts of the press and its role in society, “Why is the press as it is? Why does it apparently serve different purposes and appear in widely different forms in different countries?” The answers to these questions led the authors to present the Authoritarian, the Soviet communist, the Libertarian, and the Social Responsibility models, which explain what the press should be and do in different countries. The field of media studies has made gradual progress in addressing these types of questions. According to Siebert et al (1956), “the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates” (p.

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2). From their perspective, journalism and other forms of media will mirror the “basic beliefs and assumptions, which the society holds” (p. 2). Therefore, these beliefs may differ from country to country because each culture has its own principles and priorities. For instance, in Western liberal tradition, news outlets appear to pay more attention to matters such as freedom and equality, while in some developing countries these topics are not the news outlets’ priorities.

The media’s main power is to play a significant role in promoting democracy by providing basic news and information as well as forming a safe public sphere, where the public can have an active role in “civic affairs, in enhancing national and cultural identity in promoting creative expression and dialogue” (Moniruzzaman, 2018, p. 70). The debate about media and democracy revolves around two ideas, which are democratizing media as an important value and promoting the media role in democratizing societies (Raboy, 1998). However, others argue that the media have the intention to operate and be seen as free presenters of information, but are contested in their own right by governments and their laws.

For instance, the authoritarian media system applies strict editorial taboos inside media organizations, such as not allowing the discussion of democracy and freedom of speech. Most developing countries have issues in terms of freedom of speech and controlling all media outlets (Rugh, 2004). Authoritarian government interference in press freedom before and after the appearance of social media, such as having the most restrictive media environment in the world, in order to control journalists has placed these countries near the bottom in press freedom rankings. However, “the technology of the Internet embodies the culture of freedom” (Castells, 2012, p. 231). Online media changed the way that people receive and interact with information, especially in developing countries (Lotan et al., 2011). It has created the opportunity for more public freedom and independence in engaging in discussing the news. Therefore, this study will offer an explanation whether there is any connection between the media system and people’s perception of democracy, the level of trust in governments, and the way people track news and information in different media as well as political systems.

This study investigates people’s perceptions of democracy in different media systems by exploring the perceptions and attitudes of people towards the fundamental concepts of democracy and governance, particularly in the era of online media. This study focuses on the level of trust and confidence in government and its media institutions based on the news source that people rely on. Finally, this study examines the potential impact of a certain media system on the way that people track news and information.

Freedom of Press and Media Systems

The media system in a given society is complex because of the interlock between media systems and other fields, such as politics and economy. As Hallin and Mancini (2004) argue that “one cannot understand the news media without understanding the nature of the state, the system of political parties, the pattern of relations between economic and political interests, and the development of civil society, among other elements of social structures” (p. 8). Therefore, Hallin and Mancini (2004) attempt to fill a gap created by Siebert et al.’s (1956) Four Theories of the Press in order to understand news environment in different societies. The authors propose some answers to Siebert et al.’s questions that led them to offer three well-known models of media systems, the “polarized pluralist model”, the “democratic corporatist model,” and the “liberal model”. Hallin and Mancini (2004) discuss the main argument of Siebert et al, “that the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates” (pp. 1-2) arguing that the media systems “reflect” the social structures as well as “have an impact of their own on other social structures” (p. 8). Therefore, Hallin and Mancini (2004) emphasize that there is a mutual relation between media systems and political systems.

A system, in its basic definition, is a set element that is associated with each other. Therefore, a system can be understood by explaining the whole pattern of relationships between its elements. Thus, media systems are various forms of media institutions and practices that are interacting with and shaping one another (Hallin, 2015; Hardy, 2008). This paper is influenced by Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) typology of media systems in which they introduce four main dimensions or variables for their classification of media systems: 1) the development of media markets; 2) the degree of the linkage between media and political parties; 3) journalistic professionalism; and 4) the role of the state in the media system.

This study focuses on one of the media system’s elements, the degree and nature of state intervention in the media system, specifically, the role of governments in influencing news production. This may explain the link between the public’s news sources, and government involvement in media institutions. This focus on media-government nexus is related to 1) the level of trust that the public has on their government and its media systems, and 2) the perceptions of democracy that people develop based on their news sources.

State intervention has an unrivaled influence over the journalistic professionalism by elucidating the tradition of clientelism, which hinders professionalism. Therefore, “media systems are shaped by the wider context of political history, structure, and culture” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 46). Journalism practices are influenced by media systems (Cook, 1998), which greatly form news production (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Preston, 2008; & McQuail, 2010). Media have a great power in influencing and shaping societies, politics, and the public’s perceptions. Media intervene between societies and politics by providing citizens the issues of politics as well as imposing cultural norms and directing the public’s political choices in an environmental democracy (Kemp et al., 2016; McQuail, 1994). In some cases, the relationship between media and politics comes to conflict due to particular political agenda or interests. This tension can lead governments to adopt policies that impose media censorship and add more limitations to media’s role in society. In this case, media outlets try to adopt one of two solutions; one is to claim its autonomy and hegemony away from governments, and the other is to intermingle with government policies. In both cases, media news is filtered to a certain extent in which a gatekeeper regulates the content of political information that the public receives (Prat, 2014; Graber, 2012; Bennett, 2001).

Governments and News Productions

In a truly liberal democracy, the legitimacy of a government does not interfere with media operators and journalists and allows them to run a self-governing media system that embodies certain professional traits. The defining features of Hallin and Mancini’s “Liberal Model” are a commercial news market that supports liberal values, such as autonomy and freedom, a low level of state intervention, and a high tendency towards professional journalism. The nature of democracy implies that free and open media platforms are necessary for citizens to communicate and enhance critical practices that exist in democratic societies (McConnell & Becker, 2002). Thus, mass media in a steady democracy is crucial for individuals to enhance their understanding of their society (McConnell & Becker, 2002). However, full free media and press environment appears to be inapplicable. In media-driven democracies, governments and politicians have a great impact on the news agenda and news frames by using different techniques (Blumler & Gurevitch, 1981).

Media freedom should be linked to citizens’ rights of freedom of expression and support the function of democracy. Yet, in reality, almost every country in the world applies laws to regulate the media in different ways. The applied laws and regulations create threats to the journalistic authority and put it at stake. The freedom press report (2017) indicates that almost half of the world’s population lives in societies where the press environment is not free. Furthermore, only 13 percent of the world’s population has the benefit of a free press, where journalists produce robust political news away from the government’s intrusion and journalists work in a safe environment. The freedom house (2017) divides the world into three categories in terms of freedom of the press: free, partly free, and not free. For instance, Eurasia and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries are known to have the worst-performing zone in the world for press freedom because of the autocratic regimes which clearly show disdain for media autonomy and allow few avenues of free expression. It is notable that the Western media systems allow government interference based on laws, rules, and regulations that are issued by elected officials to organize the media environment without causing any harm to the freedom of press. However, this seems to be the prime difference to most countries in the MENA region, where authoritarian governments have vague regulations and indefinite “red lines” that must not be crossed by journalists, that are meant to protect the government and mislead the public. These “red lines” indicate a lack of professionalism, poor press laws and ethics, journalistic corruption, and control that forces journalists to produce content that serves governments’ interests (Pintak & Ginges, 2012).

The government’s interference with media sometimes arises as a result of a cooperative relationship between government officials and journalists, who exchange resources or exclusive information (Blumler & Gurevitch, 1981; Gans, 1979; Larsson, 2002). During this process, journalists “may be under considerable pressure to report on them in ways that their sources find congenial” (Cook, 1998, p. 89). Political motivations are powerful and ubiquitous (Maurer, 2017); thus, politicians are able to push their influences forward to impact the news and their agenda (Berkowitz, 2010). However, in some authoritarian regimes, the competence of media legislation is a part of the government’s job in order to control the information flow. This is achieved by applying restrictions that limit journalists’ ability to report on specific events, which negatively impact public opinion (Ansolabehere, Behr & Iyengar, 1993; Hallin, 1989) and results in biased information for the public (Fogerty, 2011).

Governments and Journalists

The relationship between governments and journalists is essential because of the mutual dependence between “mutually adaptive actors, pursuing divergent (though overlapping) purposes” (Blumler & Gurevitch 1995, p. 32). In some developing countries, government-controlled media is the only model and an outstanding form for both local and regional systems (Boyd, 1999). The logical explanation of state-controlled media in the developing countries comes from a political belief in the power of media as voice and expression outlets (Ayish, 2001). Authoritarian governments in these societies seem to consider the political role of media in both local and regional affairs. Therefore, individuals and private corporations should not have control over media systems. For instance, some government television systems in the Arab region have made a major change in terms of administrative and financial autonomy of media channels. However, their editorial agendas continue to be subordinate to government policies (Ayish, 2001), which “have inhibited the growth of a participatory public sphere in Arab societies” (Ayish, 2002, p. 140). Basically, governments are still controlling and monitoring all kinds of media channels but under different terms and conditions. The government’s explicit ownership of media outlets transfers a complicated financial system of private and appointed ownership to indirectly hold power over media outlets, journalists, and content (Lynch, 2006; Rugh, 2004). Thus, the relationship between governments and journalists in authoritarian countries is non-negotiable, and journalists must serve government interests even if that means the public remains unaware of what really matters in their country.

Past research shows competing, but interlocking, normative forms of journalism are related to the types of services journalists provide their audiences (i.e. Hallin, 2009; Zelizer, 2009; Anderson, 2007; Christians et al, 2009; Schudson, 2009). These normative forms reveal that journalists, in free press systems, sometimes act as impartial mediators of reality, independent watchdogs of government officials, advocates of certain political parties or views, or opinion leaders for the masses. These different forms of journalism in society can create an issue in a political, economic, and cultural context within a community (Zelizer, 2009). However, media laws in non-free press systems breach the independence of journalism as a crucial precondition for an environmental democracy that helps the community to function properly and serves the community in general or various groups within a community. Thus, journalists become puppets on a string that do what governments demand of them.

Scholars emphasize the importance of journalistic professional autonomy so that they can fulfill their democratic functions in society (Blumler & Gurevitch, 1981; Van Dalen, Albaek, & de Vreese, 2011) regardless of their complex relations with politicians and government officials. This in turn, requires journalists who live in these difficult conditions to fear retributions from their governments and report crucial political news under governmental pressure. Also, this leads a great number of independent journalists to operate from abroad (Hem, 2014) and use anonymous social media accounts (Almalki, 2016; Aldaihani, 2015) to publish news stories in other countries’ media outlets or their unidentified online account instead of publishing at home media outlets.

News Environment

A large body of scholarly literature points towards the press environment of developing countries. Press laws and ethics, license laws, political ideology, and governmental aggression in some of these countries threaten journalists to produce content that serves governments’ interests (Elmasry, 2012; Mellor, 2007, 2008; Rugh, 2004). This control indicates that some news stories appear impacted by the personal tastes and interests of government officials rather than professional norms. Rugh (1987) found that government-controlled television in the Arab region is the dominant model that distinguishes local and regional broadcasting systems. However, in the past 15 years, media freedom has increased in some developing countries, which has led to more independent and oppositional news outlets (Ayish, 2002; Cooper, 2008; Elmasry, 2012; Mellor, 2008). Katz and Wedell (1977) explain that “the virtual abandonment throughout the developing world, of Western patterns of broadcasting in which, however defined, the broadcasting system has some element of autonomy from the government of the day” (p. 212). This broadcasting pattern resulted in television channels becoming a mouthpiece for government policies as well as national and international issues and events (Ayish, 2002), which caused the creation of strict editorial taboos inside news organizations.

In the current media environment, users have an overwhelming amount of choices and the ability to go anywhere to obtain news of interest. This pulls away from traditional platforms, especially in societies, which lack a freedom of press. Thus, the features that online media news platforms, such as Twitter, offer change the whole concept of news sources in which people have the possibility to set a variety of social agendas in different places. Also, obtaining news from online media could be associated with how the public has lost confidence in government and its traditional media outlets (Sabir, 2012), or because people do not trust the press systems anymore (Putnam, 2000), especially when there are more restrictions. Technologies contribute to the creation of a free media environment and give people courage to have a voice (Gauntlett, 2011). Also, it provides the necessary opportunity for the public to shape what they discern as publicly relevant content, which scatters the news media’s power to integrate individuals in a social world (Swart et al., 2017).

Other studies emphasize that the speed and simplicity of online news are what attracts audiences, especially Twitter, as the primary source for news updates. It is notable that the global increase in online platform usage contributes to the changes in the way that the news is produced and distributed, and how citizens discuss and interact with online news. For instance, in developing countries online media provide a chance at shifting the political system in authoritarian regimes (Tufekci & Wilson, 2012). This was clear in Egypt and Libya, where the public used Facebook and Twitter “to share their political positions and document abuses of state power across global communication networks” (Creech, 2016, p. 1011). Therefore, the online media platform is more like a public sphere that allows people to stay informed about topics and events that are relevant to them, especially in non-democratic societies where mainstream media still functions under governments’ authority and audiences seek alternative news venues. However, it is undeniable that the media structure is rapidly shifting and now more than ever since online media and technology is redefining journalism, challenging governments and politicians, and allowing those who have long been silenced to speak up loudly. Yet, there is a lack of research that investigates the connection between media systems and the public, and the role that the governments play to influence the news consumptions, especially in more strict media societies.

However, the study aims to find out whether getting the news from online sources is something that appears more in countries where the press system is not free or whether it is just a way for people to be get news updates these days and is not influenced by the press system.

The following hypotheses test the influence of the media or political systems and people’s selection of news and information sources:

The level of freedom of press in a certain society will influence people’s decision of what news sources they use to obtain daily news or information.

The news sources that people rely on will influence their confidence in government and its media system.

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