How Can Journalism Best Work in Support of Democracy?

Throughout history, virtually every country around the globe has seen media inexorably develop as communications systems improve.  However, the unique and varied cultures, traditions and economies of states mean that even neighbouring countries can develop different forms of media system, highlighting and upholding different values and ideologies with the same vigour.  This essay will explore how media can best operate in support of democracy by discussing the differing media systems of Italy and the United States of America.  In particular, this essay will utilise the works of Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini to examine the differences between each country’s media system; the “Mediterranean or Polarised Pluralist Model” and the “North Atlantic or Liberal Model” respectively.

In nineteenth-century Southern Europe, the dominance of landholding aristocrats and the clergy meant that the development of media in the Mediterranean Model was devoted to two dominant spheres of society: the political and the literary, described by historian Alberto Asor Rosa (1981) as the two filoni (veins) in the history of Italian Journalism (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, pp. 90-91).  Newspapers were devoted to the discussion and expression of ideas and works within these spheres, and whilst a commercial press did begin to circulate in the late nineteenth-century, it never became truly established in any Southern European country (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 91).  Instead, the early twentieth-century saw the development of a strong party press, as political groups began to use the media to communicate with the mass public (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 94).  Media was disrupted with the rise of fascism, but the strong links between political parties and press remained strong after its collapse, even as Mediterranean media saw a slight shift toward a more market orientated press in the 1970s and 80s (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 96).

The Liberal Model, or the ‘Anglo-American Model’ as it is commonly referred to, is, according to Hallin and Mancini (2004, p. 198), “in some sense the only model that has been analysed in media studies… as a coherent model”, with Jean Chalaby (1996) even going so far as to claim that journalism and the modern concept of news are in fact “Anglo-American” inventions.  Developed first in Great Britain, and shortly afterward in the United States, the Liberal Model rapidly spread to other North Atlantic countries, such as Canada and Ireland.  Whilst not as unitary a model as it often appears to be, with each adopting country implementing it in sometimes distinctly different ways, there are a number of important common features present within this model: firstly, commercial newspapers developed relatively early within this system, with newspapers, and later commercial broadcasters, remaining largely free from political influence; second, the relative independence of media within the Liberal Model came about due to a dominant informational style of reporting, which led to greater emphasis placed on facts and traditions of political neutrality – with some countries embracing stringent standards of neutrality (USA) and others less stringent (Great Britain); and third, professional journalistic standards developed relatively strongly (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 198).

The Liberal Model, or the ‘Anglo-American Model’ as it is commonly referred to, is, according to Hallin and Mancini, “in some sense the only model that has been analysed in media studies… as a coherent model

One of the most significant differences between the Liberal and Mediterranean Models is the extent to which politics and political influence are involved.  As noted above, mass media in Southern European countries are historically intertwined with the two spheres, or filoni, of the political and the literary, tending to be strongly politicized as a result.  Surveys have shown that journalists in Italy report substantially higher levels of pressure from senior editors or management, their ‘political masters’, on issues of content than their American counterparts, with Italian journalists far more likely to find their reports changed by others for political reasons (Hallin & Papathanassopoulos, 2002, p. 181).  One Italian journalist used the phrase “giornalista dimezzato” – the journalist cut in half – to describe how a journalist only owned half of himself, with the other half ruled by external forces, usually from the worlds of politics and business (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 113).  This problem deepens when the relationships between Italian journalists and the state are considered; Italy has one of the highest levels of state subsidies for the press in Europe, including indirect subsidies to journalists in the form of better pension and health benefits than most Italian workers (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 121).  With the state providing such benefits, journalists may be reluctant to criticise the state, or investigate stories too deeply, for fear of losing subsidies, foregoing the watchdog role typically claimed by Anglo-American media.  Furthermore, Italian journalists often have strong political ties or alliances, and it is not uncommon for individuals with a media background to enter the political arena, or vice versa; Silvio Berlusconi, for example, utilized his near total dominance of Italian commercial television broadcasting to fuel a successful campaign for national leadership – becoming Prime Minister despite no previous political experience (Marletti & Roncarolo, 2000, p. 197).

In his 1959 essay “Millecinquecento Lettori” – “Fifteen hundred readers” – journalist Forcella had this to say on the politicization of Italian media:
When I first started doing journalism, I thought journalism was before all else information, facts, news… But I sadly learned, slowly, too slowly, that I was greatly deceived.  Facts for a political journalist never speak by themselves.  They either say too much or too little.  When they say too much you have to make them speak more softly, when they say too little you have to integrate them to give them proper meaning.  Clarity in this work is a cumbersome virtue…” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 101)
From a Liberal perspective, the involvement of opinion and political influence in news reporting is objectionable; to quote Joseph Pulitzer: “In America, we want facts.  Who cares about the philosophical speculations of our correspondents?” (Chalaby, 1996, p. 311).  Whilst Southern European countries such as Italy cultivated a strong tradition of party-parallelism within media, in America disillusionment with state propaganda and ‘official’ channels of information led to growing support for a fact-centred discourse, with the American Society of Newspaper Editors announcing in 1923 that impartiality – a clear distinction between news reports and opinion – was the fifth of their ‘canons’ of journalism  (Allan, 2010, p. 44).  As Schudson notes (2001, pp. 149-150), ‘objectivity’ is now the chief professional value in American journalism, supporting a model of news reporting that separates “facts from values”, reports in a “cool, rather than emotional” tone, and rejects the partisan tendency to “present information from the perspective of a particular party or faction.”

It is that last point that presents the importance of impartial reporting to a democratic society, though; objectivity demands that journalists present neutral facts to their readers, facilitating the audience’s right of access to unbiased information, so that a they, the voting citizens of the democratic society, can make up their own minds about policy and events, free from partisan influence.  When this is coupled with the Liberal model’s history of providing more up-to-date and abundant information, due to the demands of its fact-centred discourse (Chalaby, 1996, p. 305), a strong argument can be made for objective reporting creating the conditions for healthy public debate.  Influential journalist Walter Lippmann gave voice to this view in the early 1920s, setting out in his two books, Liberty and the News (1920) and Public Opinion (1922), his belief that the very health of a democratic society was at stake if governing institutions didn’t receive the objective information they required to operate effectively (Allan, 2010, p. 45).  It was Lippmann’s view that only through ‘accomplished facts’, i.e. neutral, unbiased reported facts, that truth could be distinguished from an ‘ocean’ of possible interpretations: “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act” (Allan, 2010, pp. 45-46).

From a Liberal perspective, the involvement of opinion and political influence in news reporting is objectionable; to quote Joseph Pulitzer: “In America, we want facts.  Who cares about the philosophical speculations of our correspondents?

Where the Anglo-American model has been adopted, media outlets generally enjoy a greater reputation of prestige and credibility in large part due to the care they typically take to balance coverage.  America in particular has typically seen its media positioned across a much narrower political spectrum than European countries; there is a strong assumption in modern American journalism that editorial opinion is irrelevant to news reporting, because news reporting should be inherently unbiased, regardless of party orientation.  The San Diego Union Tribune, for example, a strongly Republican paper, shared a significant proportion of its coverage of the fiercely partisan presidential election in 2000 with The New York Times, which held almost the opposite editorial stance (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 208).  This represents a stark difference from American newspapers in the mid-20th century – in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), partisan newspaper owners are portrayed as political villains manipulating information to thwart the will of the people (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 217).  As Hallin and Mancini note, though, there are signs of change in modern American broadcasting; since the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which required “balanced” coverage of controversial issues, the number of ideological radio and television programmes, particularly those of a right-wing orientation, has rapidly increased (2004, p. 217).

When opinion enters a media system famed for its impartial reporting, there is a distinct concern that citizens will be unconsciously influenced.  As the providers of new information about policies, news and events, media is central to framing issues for their audience, with these frames governing how citizens make sense of the world (Price Schultz & Achenhagen, 2013, p. 1061).  This is particularly true for foreign news: where a correspondent is reporting on news far away, citizens lack the general context to critically judge their reports, and editors lack the knowledge to second guess them (Schudson, 2001, p. 163).  In many Southern European countries, media is essentially famed for not being impartial; Italy’s experience with Fascism and dictatorship mean that it is has particularly reinforced inclinations toward party parallelism and advocacy journalism – Mussolini was a journalist, and therefore encouraged an emphasis on commentary and opinion in reporting to suit his own political ends (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 100).  Advocacy journalism is reporting which is intended to be biased; it makes no illusions of neutrality, and adopts a particular opinion from the outset.  That is not to say, however, that it is akin to propaganda; as Schudson notes (2001, p. 150), partisan journalists still reject inaccuracy, lying and misinformation, they simply differ from objective journalists in that they don’t hesitate to offer information from a particular perspective.

Advocacy journalism often holds that true objectivity is a myth, due to the inherent biases a reporter naturally possesses.  Italian newspaper La Republica, for example, pioneered a style including more colourful writing, a broadened agenda, and more female reporters and readers; it was, in the words of its founder, Eugenio Scalfari, La Republica a bit different from other newspapers: “it is a journal of information that doesn’t pretend to follow an illusory political neutrality, but declares explicitly that it has taken a side in the political battle” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 101).  As noted in the previous paragraph, media creates the frames for which citizens interpret the world, even reporting on areas where the audience have no knowledge to act upon other than what the reporter gives them.  Citizens are rarely experts on policy, current affairs, or complex events, and yet in a democracy, it is they who, theoretically, hold the power to make monumental decisions regarding the governance of their country, be it through the election of representatives or directly through a referendum.  Commentary-orientated reporting therefore can be an excellent tools to promote a healthy democracy, by allowing journalists to inform the public about the news with more than simply facts: Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune argues that advocacy journalism looks at issues in greater depth, identifying any potential correlations, and finding out what the ‘actual reality’ of a situation is (Price Schultz & Achenhagen, 2013, p. 1061), although whether an ‘actual reality’ of a situation can ever truly be reported is highly questionable.  Journalists spend time investigating a topic, exploring all of its facets and building a report based on their findings.  Advocacy journalism, therefore, would hold that these journalists are in a far better position than citizens to appropriately judge information, and that commentary-orientated news can frame an issue far better than ‘cold’, objective reporting.

Advocacy journalism is reporting which is intended to be biased; it makes no illusions of neutrality, and adopts a particular opinion from the outset

If objective reporting is ‘cold’, though, then advocacy journalism is surely ‘hot’.  La Republica’s colourful writing and graphical presentation is only a mild example of the levels of sensationalism often present in Italian media, as outlets attempt to attract new audiences; focusing on reporting economic and political news based more on gossip than reliable information, weakening commitments to deliver high-quality journalism (Marletti & Roncarolo, 2000, p. 216).  L’Indipendente presents an example of Italian journalistic culture: it began as a ‘cold’, objective newspaper, but struggled to attract readers until a new editor brought it into the typical, combative style (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 102).  Often, this adversarial style of journalism brings Italian media into an activist role, usually in attempts to mobilise readers to support causes and events along partisan lines.  Information on political demonstrations, as well as active campaigning are not uncommon; in a dramatic example, Il Messaggero protested divorce law changes in 1974 with entire front page taken up by the word “No!” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 103).  The over politicization of media can, however, have a dire impact on its plurality and the diversity of voices represented; after taking power, Berlusconi and his coalition allies altered the rules governing the public broadcasting system, Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), tightening their control over public and private broadcasting (Marletti & Roncarolo, 2000, p. 197).  This instrumentalization of the media presents concerns for the health of Italian democracy; an important part of democracy is variety and diversity allowing all voices to be represented.  If media outlets lack appropriate pluralism, and are used to enhance only the interests of certain figures and elites, then particular viewpoints are being grossly over represented.  History suggests that Italian media has often failed to sufficiently disseminate alternative ideas and information, and it has been suggested (Marletti & Roncarolo, 2000, p. 213) that Italian media is too often submissive to the control of political parties and economic groups.

In America, the freer and more commercial press is also highly adversarial, but often with the entire political establishment rather than specific parties; the Liberal media claims a watchdog role as the ‘fourth branch’ of government, claiming a responsibility to hold the government to account through checks on the legislative, executive and judicial branches (Patterson, 2000, p. 248).  Professionalism in American journalism is tied to objectivity – remaining balanced in reporting the news; muckraking and gossip are rare, with opinion and criticism of politician and the political process limited to clearly defined opinion columns and editorials (Patterson, 2000, p. 249).  However, whilst instrumentalization has declined, there are exceptions, and at times media owners have been accused of interfering to support their own vital, political and economic interests (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 219).  The benefit of a watchdog media is the accountability of a democratic government.  Investigative reporting government overreach and corruption ensures that such practices are limited, and citizens can be sure that their elected officials are acting in their best interests; the Washington Post’s investigation into the Watergate scandal, led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is the epitome of media holding politicians to account.

Of the people, for the people, by the people.”  The words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address extolling the virtues of representative democracy are now famous and oft quote.  The important aspect to this particular section, though, is the word ‘people’; Lincoln was referring to the voting citizens within the American democracy, without whom a democracy is simply impossible.  A democracy’s citizens are the ones with whom power ultimately rests, whether it is though the election of representatives to wield literal power, or through direct decision-making in referendum.  This essay therefore concludes that the best way the media can operate in support of democracy is by informing them, giving them the knowledge and wherewithal to critically reason and assess issues, policies and events around them, so that they are in the best position to effectively carry out the power entrusted in them in a democracy.  Both the Liberal model in the United States of America and the Southern European model in Italy go about providing this information differently; in America, the greatest tenant is maintaining impartiality, so that the news provided to citizens is objective, and reasoning can begin with neutral, untainted information.  The problem with objectivity, though, is context: how can information be judged if a citizen has no background from which to start?  In Italy, this is solved through advocacy journalism; objectivity is a myth, so news is framed from citizens from positions of clear bias, providing both information and context.  How though to avoid situations where information comes from a source controlled by just a few voices, where pluralism, a vital quality in democracy, is diminished?  Should not the media, as they do in America, challenge the government, demand that they be accountable and incorruptible?  To support democracy, media must provide information and context, but not frame news to as to bias citizens.  It must hold government to account, but not do so by alienating it and closing channels of information.  Neither the Southern European model nor the Liberal model fulfil all these criteria, but nor do they fail in their respective way to support democracy.  History simply demands, as is natural, that media operate in a way fitting the culture of its native country, supporting each case to the best of its specific tenants.  But perhaps in both cases, democracy could still be served better.


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Author: James Walker

Recent Masters graduate spreading his "valuable" views on journalism, politics, and video gaming

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