NORMATIVE THEORIES OF THE PRESS.
Theories, defined by the Encarta’s Webster’s dictionary, are the body of rules, ideas, principles and techniques that applies to a particular subject, especially when seen as distinct from actual practice or simply put, theories are descriptive statements that attempt to describe reality.
Normative theories of the press can be described as ideal views of how journalism or media ought to or are expected to operate. These purposes are best understood in relation to larger claims about the good society.
There are four theories of the press (Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social responsibility and Soviet communist) which were propounded by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm in 1956 to attempt to clarify the connection between the mass media and the political society. By “press’’, Siebert means all the mass media communication including television, radio and newspapers.
Authoritarian theory: This is the oldest of the normative press theories. It came into being in the authoritarian climate of the late renaissance, soon after the invention of printing (University of Illinois Press). This theory explains how the mass media ought to operate within an authoritarian political system which consisted of a very limited and small-ruling class. In the authoritarian society, truth was thought to be, not the result of the great mass of people, but a few wise men that are in a position to guide and direct their fellows. The press therefore functioned in a top down approach were the government dictates to the press on what to publish and say. The press was not allowed to print or broadcast anything that could undermine the existing people in authority. Under the authoritarian system, the government was assumed to be infallible and could punish anyone who questions the states ideology.
In conclusion, the press may remain free to publish without censorship if, they do not say anything that is against the ruling class.
Libertarian theory: The libertarian theory also called the free press theory views rest on the idea that the individuals of the press should be free to publish or say whatever he or she likes. The rise of libertarian ideas traces back to the 17th century philosophers like John Milton, John Locke, Saint Simone and others, where John Milton together with the other philosophers, asserted that human beings inevitably choose the best ideas and values and they can distinguish between truth and falsehood or good and bad.
Under the libertarian system, critics on government policies are accepted and even encouraged and there are no restrictions on import or export of media messages across the national frontiers. The journalists and media professionals are independent within the media organisation.
In conclusion, this theory saw the media as a representative of the people in the society and it has helped to bring down the ideas and practices of authoritarianism.
Social Responsibility Theory: Hutchins Commission, in 1947, reaffirmed the principles of freedom or independence but added to them the notion of social responsibility. Virulent critics of the Free Press Theory were Schramm, Siebert and Peterson. In their book Four Theories of Press, they stated "pure libertarianism is antiquated, outdated and obsolete." They advocated the need for its replacement by the Social Responsibility theory. This theory can be said to have been initiated in the United States by the Commission of The Freedom of Press, 1949. The commission found that the free market approach to press freedom had only increased the power of a single class and has not served the interests of the less well-off classes. The emergence of radio, TV and film suggested the need for some means of accountability.
Claude Betrand the proponent of the idea of media accountability describes accountability as “non-governmental means of including media and journalists to respect the ethical rules set by the profession. They are extremely diverse but all aim at improving news media, using evaluation, monitoring, education, feedback and communication.” Thus the theory advocated some obligation on the part of the media to society. A judicial mix of self regulation and state regulation and high professional standards were imperative.
Social Responsibility theory thus became the modern variation in which the duty to ones conscience was the primary basis of the right of free expression.
Soviet Communist Press Theory: The Soviet theory is closely tied to a specific ideology; the communist. Siebert traces the roots of this theory back to the 1917 Russian Revolution based on the thoughts and arguments of Marx and Engels that "the ideas of the ruling classes are the ruling ideas" which was modified and applied by Lenin. The media organizations in this system were not intended to be privately owned and were to serve the interests of the working class. The theory was in the support that the sole purpose of mass media was to educate the great masses of workers and not to give out information. The public was encouraged to give feedback as it was the only way the media would be able to cater to its interests.
In conclusion, the media is expected to respond to the desire and the needs of their audience. The clearest current example of the Soviet media theory is how the media function in China, where TV, radio, and newspapers are controlled by the communist government.
The term “normative theories” was propounded by Dennis McQuail in the sense that Siebert’s four theories of the press “mainly express ideas of how the media ought to or are expected to operate under a prevailing set of conditions and values.” He therefore described Siebert’s theories as “biased”. In his book Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction, McQuail developed two more theories (Development Media Theory and Democratic-Participant Media Theory) to accommodate the loopholes in the four basic theories which have been elaborated below;
Development Media Theory: William Hachten (1992), defines this theory as a theory that describes the social and political system in which the government and media work in concert to ensure that the media aid the planned, beneficial development of a given nation.” The genesis of this theory was that there can be no development without communication. Under the four classical theories, capitalism was legitimized, but under the Development Media Theory or Development Support Communication as it is otherwise called, the media undertook the role of carrying out positive developmental programmes, accepting restrictions and instructions from the State.
The media does not depend on foreign media and can be private owned. There was support from the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for this theory. The weakness of this theory is that "development" is often equated with government propaganda.
Democratic-Participant Media Theory: This theory was the last and latest addition to the list of normative theory which according to McQuail is difficult to define as a theory because it lacks legitimacy and it’s difficult to incorporate into media institutions. Why? He argues that most of the tenets embodied in this theory can be found in the other earlier theories. The democratic-participant theory advocates media support for political and cultural pluralism at the grass-roots level. It attempts to explain how the media can empower the economic and politically marginalized. This theory vehemently opposes the commercialization of modern media and its top-down non-participant character. The need for access and right to communicate is stressed. The media is owned and controlled by small communities and is a mixture of Liberal, Social Responsibility and Soviet Communist Theories.
Siebert, Frederick S., Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm. Four Theories of the Press. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963
McQuail, Denis. Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction. London: SAGE Publications, 1987.
Commission of Freedom of the Press. A Free and Responsible Press. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947.
Kodwo Boateng, lecturer Ghana Institute of Journalism.