Mass media do not operate in a vacuum. This assertion is generally agreed upon, and has led researchers to study the relationship between mass media and the government. The first well-known attempt to clarify the link between mass media and the political society was introduced by Frederick S. Siebert in 1963, and presented in Four Theories of the Press by Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm. The purpose of the work was to establish and explain four normative theories that ought to illustrate the press' position in relation to its political environment. By "press" Siebert, means all the media of mass communication, including television, radio, and newspaper. Siebert's four theories (the authoritarian, the libertarian, the Soviet, and the social responsibility) are still acknowledged by many mass media researchers as the most proper categories to describe how different media systems operate in the world. The popular media researcher Shirley Biagi, for instance, builds her research on the four theories of the press without even questioning Siebert's approach. Confirming this, journalists Ralph Lowenstein and John Merrill write: "Almost every article and book dealing with philosophical bases for journalism has alluded to this book [Four Theories of the Press], commented on it, or quoted from it. It has definitely made an impact". There is, therefore, a need to evaluate the four theories analytically in order to find out if Siebert's approach still is the most functional. A critical evaluation shows that Siebert's theories, which seek to explain the relationship between mass media and the government, are outdated and too simplistic to be useful in today's media research. In this paper, I will present the four theories as they appear in Four Theories of the Press, including their historical background and current examples. Then I will evaluate Siebert's approach followed by an open suggestion on a more concise model of how media and society are connected.
The authoritarian theory
According to Siebert, the authoritarian state system requires direct governmental control of the mass media. This system is especially easy to recognize in pre-democratic societies, where the government consists of a very limited and small ruling-class. The media in an authoritarian system are not allowed to print or broadcast anything, which could undermine the established authority, and any offense to the existing political values is avoided. The authoritarian government may go to the step of punishing anyone who questions the state's ideology.
The fundamental assumption of the authoritarian system is that the government is infallible. Media professionals are therefore not allowed to have any independence within the media organization. Also foreign media are subordinate to the established authority, in that all imported media products are controlled by the state.
One may think that there is an inevitable parallel between the authoritarian media system and a totalitarian society. This is true for the most part, but a government may enforce a authoritarian profile without being openly totalitarian. A state that comes close to this media system today, is Albania.
The libertarian theory
In his book, Siebert goes on to explain the libertarian theory, which is also called the free press theory. In contrast to the authoritarian theory, the libertarian view rests on the idea that the individual should be free to publish whatever he or she likes. Its history traces back to the 17th century's thinker John Milton, who asserted that human beings inevitably choose the best ideas and values. In the libertarian system, attacks on the government's policies are fully accepted and even encouraged. Moreover, there should be no restrictions on import or export of media messages across the national frontiers. Moreover, journalists and media professionals ought to have full autonomy within the media organization.
It is hard to find intact examples of libertarian media systems in today's world. The U.S. will in many aspects come close, but as we will see later, this country's media system has have tendencies of authoritarianism as well.
The Soviet theory
Apparent from its name, 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 postulates of Marx and Engel’s. The media organizations in this system were not intended to be privately owned and were to serve the interests of the working class.
The social responsibility theory
An American initiative in the late forties brought forth the social responsibility theory. Realizing that the market had failed to fulfill the promise that press freedom would reveal the truth, The Commission on Freedom of the Press provided a model in which the media had certain obligations to society. These obligations were expressed in the words "informative ness, truth, accuracy, objectivity, and balance". Siebert writes that the goal of the social responsibility system is that media as a whole is pluralized, indicating "a reflection of the diversity of society as well as access to various points of view".
As opposed to the libertarian theory, the social responsibility principle is to provide an entrance to different mass media to minority groups. The journalist is accountable to his audience as well as to the government.
Siebert's theories: a normative approach
Mass media scholars Jack McLeod and Jay Blumler point out that it is important to notice that Siebert's theories were intended to be normative, meaning that "they do not attempt to stipulate how social systems do operate, but rather with specification of how they should or could work according to some preexisting set of criteria". An evaluation of the theories should, therefore, not find out if they provide perfect descriptions of the various political systems, but rather if the approach leads to a valuable understanding of the mass media's position in society. For instance, it would be a mistake to judge Siebert's theories as dysfunctional solely on the basis of a study that shows that the Soviet model does not entirely tell how the current Russian media operate.
With regard to this, two notes need to be made: First, the ideal system is not synonymous with the best system as ascribed to the author. Secondly, one must not mistake Siebert's theories as being a representation of how the mass media system actually works.
However, it is legitimate to expect that theories concerning mass media and society to a large degree correspond to actual political systems. If not, the contemporary usefulness of such theories would be low.
Numerous studies have been done to evaluate the four media systems in order to point out the most successful. Unfortunately, these studies tend to overlook that there might be weaknesses in Siebert's theories from their starting-point. The purpose of this evaluation is therefore not be to discover potential weaknesses of the four media systems, but rather to criticize on Siebert's approach to answering the question: How can we best understand the relationship between mass media and society?
The critics will be presented under the headings of five statements that demonstrate attributes of a good theory.
A good theory is not limited to a short period of time
In his book A First Look at Communication Theory, Em Griffin claims that a main requirement of a good media theory is that it should not reflect only a limited period of time. With this in mind, it is legitimate to expect that theories concerning mass media and society, such as the four theories of the press, to a large degree correspond to actual political systems. If not, the usefulness of such theories would be low in the current media world.
Supporting the time requirement, McLeod and Blumler also emphasize the fact that a mass media theorist always has to decide what time span the proposed theory should be valid for. In other words, a theory will always be a compromise between general and specific criteria; that is, "to what extent the theory is applicable to all conditions at all times". Hence, a theory cannot be expected to be general enough to fit both the communications of the ancient Roman Empire and the computer technology of NASA's Kennedy Base. Nevertheless, it is legitimate to assume that a media theory created in the 1960's has validity 30 years later. Siebert was aiming at exactly this: to come up with a theory that would be useful for media researchers throughout the 20th century.
Given these circumstances, it is a reasonable requirement that Siebert's theories have relevancy over at least three to four decades. Unfortunately, several recent political changes in the world indicate that Siebert's approach fails to do so. Most apparent are the drastic changes of Eastern Europe's political conditions during the past five years. The collapse of the iron curtain and the Soviet Union makes it irrelevant to talk about a "Soviet media theory," because it no longer reflects the conditions of the Soviet superpower. The other three models are also closely related to political ideologies of their age, as explained by Siebert himself. When introducing the basis for the four theories, he does not make any attempt to hide the fact that all of them have their roots from specific periods of time and are closely tied to the political conditions of those ages. Consequently, a potential weakness of his approach appears when the chosen political systems diminish.
On the other hand, one might argue in favor of Siebert's approach by referring to the theories as being normative. This normativeness implies that the theories will remain even though their original societies no longer exist. An article that gives credit to Siebert on the basis of his intention to make the theories normative, is The Macrosocial Level of Communication Science by McLeod and Blumler. They emphasize how each of the four press models depicts a set of ideal (not actual) types which compose the ideological media system. For instance, even though there are no totalitarian states functioning in the pure form any more, Siebert's authoritarian model can be used to describe Albania because the nation's press maintains a number of totalitarian attributes.
However, McLeod and Blumler go on to state that a media theory is usually considered useless if the normative descriptions differ significantly from the actual political conditions. They argue, "The problem with it [Siebert's approach] is that the unwary reader may mistake the types as representations of how press or other systems actually work". The conclusion, then, is that the four theories of the press fail to fulfill the time aspect criterion, which by Griffin is called "the ultimate test of each theory".
A good theory is simple, yet complex enough to be fruitful
Every theory has to be a compromise between two factors; simplicity and complexity. Griffin states this balance as such, "A good theory is simple, yet complex enough to be fruitful". The flexibility of a theory, then, depends on how well the theory balance criteria of simplicity (the theory should be easy to understand) and criteria of complexity (the theory should reflect reality).
Few will dispute that Siebert's theories are easy to understand, because the simple approach makes use of well-known concepts from the area of political science. For instance, one does not have to be a communication scholar in order to understand how words like "Marxism," "working class," "communism," and "Pravda" are connected. The broad use of Siebert's theories in many basic mass communication books, such as Vivian's The Media of Mass Communication, is partly a result of the simplicity of the approach. Obviously, the four theories of the press cannot be accused for ignoring simplicity.
However, when it comes to the other end of the continuum, complexity, there is a stronger reason to look critically at Siebert's approach. Is the approach "complex enough to be fruitful"? Siebert has picked four theories based on four general political ideologies, claiming them to be measurements for all current media systems. The critical question, then, is whether or not the four theories of the press are ignoring the subtle variations among the numerous media systems of the world. McLeod and Blumler especially pay attention to this weakness of many mass media theories and use Siebert's approach as a main illustration of an approach that lacks a fruitful complexity. In their argument, they introduce the term "global typologizing," which refers to the four theories as ignoring important variations among the many press systems of the world.
A difficulty regarding Siebert's global typologizing became visible when Everett Rogers and other Third World communication researchers began their studies in the late 1960's. Because there were no organized mass media systems in development countries when Siebert presented his theories in 1963, he did not include a Third World model. Hence, Rogers found none of the media models sufficient as he searched for a model to explain how Third World mass media functioned. The first model of mass media systems in development countries came on the market as late as in 1980, when the Unesco International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems presented its so-called "MacBride report." Denis McQuail criticizes the four theories of the press when he writes that they are "biased" because they omit the Third World mass media.
Attempting to make Siebert's approach more complete by adding the development component, Herbert Altschull has proposed a mass media theory corresponding to the three worlds. In his theory, the First World corresponds to the liberal system, the Second World to the Soviet, and the Third World to the advancing (developing) system. Several researchers judge this theory as useless because it even more than Siebert's theory falls into the category of being too simple to be useful (see for instance McLeod and Blumler.
Supporting the criticism of the simplicity of Siebert's approach, McQuail has added two more theories to the original four theories of the press. The two additional theories, the development and the democratic-participant theories, seek to depict two normative systems that were absent when Siebert proposed his model. The importance of the McQuail example, as well as the Altschull example, is to notice how the researchers realize that the classic four theories fail to be flexible enough to fit all parts of the world.
The weakness of Siebert's generalizations is also clear in each of the four media systems. McLeod and Blumler write that the reader is tempted to believe that the press in the U.S. system is totally free, whereas the Albanian system gives no access for the public to express its ideas. The truth, however, is that even a liberal nation like the United States contains elements of authoritarianism in its media system. Though this might sound unfamiliar in the first place, most people will agree that the U.S. media in fact are censored, as pointed out in a Washington Journalism Review article after the Gulf War in January 1991. In the article, Jeff Kamen reports how the American reporters were required to run battlefield stories past censors before being dispatched.
John Martin and Arju Chaudhary express one last example of how Siebert’s theories suffer from a lack of flexibility, in their comparative study of international mass media models. They conclude that the press model not only is too simplified; it is biased as well. According to the study, the bias is apparent in the sense that Siebert's approach favors nations in which the basic media (newspapers, radio, and television) are subject for the same degree of governmental control. A large number of examples show that the four classic theories are too general in this aspect too. The Norwegian national TV channel Norsk rikskringkasting, for instance, is subject for governmental support and authority, whereas the newspaper system fits almost completely into the libertarian category. Media researcher Helge Østbye concludes therefore that none of Siebert's theories are sufficient for explaining the Norwegian media system.
The examples given in this evaluation show that the second requirement of a good media theory, a proper balance between simplicity and complexity, is not maintained in Siebert's approach. Among the communication scholars who agree that the four theories are too simplistic to be useful, are Lowenstein and Merrill. They conclude, "The 'four theories' concept lacks the flexibility needed for proper description and analysis of all of today's press systems and therefore should be modified".
A good mass media theory does not ignore its most important part:
Siebert's foremost goal was to provide a model to clarify how the political environment influenced the mass communication channels. In the four theories, the political environment seems to be identical with the government and its ideology. Nevertheless, the political conditions in a state are more complex than the politics of the ruling authority. Inputs from the audience will contribute to shaping how the nation's ideology is reflected in the mass media.
The impression derived from Siebert's approach is that transmission of political opinion simply is a matter of two parts; the medium itself and the government. A more fruitful approach would be to bring in the third and the largest party, the audience.
A good media theory does not ignore the communication perspective
The names of the four press theories not only testify the close link between media and their political environment, but also reveal that Siebert's starting-point is political, not communicative. First he observes the political conditions, and then he provides a mass media theory according to the known conditions.
By choosing this approach, Siebert also answers the question, "Does the mass media shape the society or opposite?" With a socio-political starting-point, Siebert becomes an advocate for materialism, which is the term used when the social structure influences the media system but not the reverse. A communicative approach would be more open for the patterns of idealism (media influencing the social structure but not reverse) and interdependence (mutual influence).
A good theory does not favor one specific system
Altschull's comments on the four mass media theory point out that every system claims its own reliability. For instance, all press systems are based on the belief in free expression, although free expression is defined in different ways. All systems also endorse the doctrine of social responsibility, proclaiming that they serve the needs and interests of the people.
In Siebert's explanations of the four models, it is evident that he assumes that only the social responsibility theory has these positive qualities. Hence, Siebert is favoring one particular theory through his choice of words, which gives the other theories a worse reputation than they claim to have.