Media System Research
Written by Katharina Dorn and Julia Traunspurger

This chapter provides an overview of current media system research. To do so, a closer look at both media freedom indices such as those published by Freedom House, IREX, or Reporters Without Borders and academic research is inevitable. In the end, this chapter helped to develop the category system that guided our very own research.
Rankings of media freedom
In the course of the World Press Freedom Day that is celebrated every year at May 3, rankings concerning media freedom are published by well-known NGOs. These rankings, although just offering simplified illustrations of complex problems, create public awareness of media freedom around the globe (Burgess, 2010: 4). In many cases, these rankings are used in political debates and political decision making or as an approach to problem solving (Burgess, 2010: 6). The relevance of these indices is also illustrated by the strong financial support the respective NGOs receive.

The well-known rankings of Freedom House (Freedom of the Press Index), Reporters Without Borders (RSF, World Press Freedom Index) and the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX, Media Sustainability Index) provide large-scale analysis of media freedom all over the globe. Using a quantitative method, a broad range of topics (e.g. legal, political, economic environments) is covered. Mostly, the surveys are answered by people not living in the countries they evaluate. Results are presented in a score (e.g. 0-100). Due to their different methodological approaches and research focus it is hard to compare the results. Even long-term comparisons within one ranking are difficult, taken into consideration that changes in methodology over time must be handled carefully (Becker, Vlad, & Nusser, 2007: 10-11; Burgess, 2010: 14-16; Schneider, 2014: 40-47). In total, they all present a rather poor image of global media freedom.
Different approaches are given by UNESCO (Media Development Indicators), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (Media and Democracy Report), and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (African Media Barometer). They all use qualitative methods (e.g. focus groups, panel discussions, qualitative expert opinion polls) to write in-depth assessments of media environments (Schneider, 2014: 40-47).

However, despite all the aforementioned advantages of these studies there are several aspects which have to be critically examined and discussed when using them for further research (Schneider, 2014: 50). The overall weaknesses of the indices are subjectivity and bias. The well-established NGOs of the field receive funding from Western governments which might influence the reliability of the results. Three-quarters of the financial resources of Freedom House, for example, are from federal US grants. Thus, it is not surprising that the organization is often accused of having a pro-US bias. IREX also relies heavily on US government funding. Reporters Without Borders is partly financed by the French government (Becker et al., 2007: 18; Behmer, 2009: 27; Burgess, 2010: 22). This could explain the fact that Western media systems are examined preferentially and that Western values are applied which could result in further bias. Some critics even depict Freedom House, RSF, and IREX as “arms of Western governments” (Burgess, 2010: 17). Furthermore, a bias towards the home country of the organizations can be assumed: In 2007 and 2008 Freedom House ranked the United States considerably higher than France – Reporters Without Borders, for its part, ranked France higher than the US in the very same years (Burgess, 2010: 17; Holtz-Bacha, 2011). Moreover, the names and affiliations of experts examining the countries are not published in the reports. Thus, it is hard to assess which interests are involved in the ratings (Schneider, 2014: 44, 50).

Despite the financial basis of the indices, the results are extremely dependent on the methodological design of the studies which is often opaque. Most of the instruments and indicators were developed and evaluated by only a handful of people and not explained in further detail. Freedom House, RSF and IREX, for example, refrain from defining the concept of media freedom. In addition, RSF does not publish the number of respondents even though the number of answered surveys greatly varies between the countries (Schneider, 2014: 44). When talking about the murder of journalists in certain publications the numbers of the victims often differ depending on the source because of the missing definition of journalism and a lack of information whether the listed killings were work-related or not.

Another common problem of international comparative research is the chosen method (qualitative, quantitative). Every study has to deal with the conflict between a wide-ranging evaluation of media systems or a more detailed in-depth analysis. Quantitative approaches “deliver little information about the characteristics of each country that are responsible for a friendly or hostile media climate. Thus, studies with a wide range of indices […] have been unable to satisfactorily explain different levels of media freedom” (Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 2005: 14). Furthermore, the rankings of the quantitative studies appear to be neutral breaking down the findings of complex relations in media systems to numbers. However, they still are hard to compare due to different methodological approaches and research focus (Schneider, 2014: 49). In conclusion, the academic value of the ratings should always be questioned and treated with caution. However, comparative media system research refers back to an even earlier period, which should also be examined.
The forefathers of comparative media system research
The beginnings of media systems typologies date to the publication of Four Theories of the Press, which was proposed by Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm (1956). In pointing out that the “press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within it operates” (1956: 1), the typology was highly normative and heavily influenced by the dichotomous thinking typical during the Cold War. The authors argued that the “understanding of the society is basic to any systematic understanding of the press” (ibid.: 2). This relationship is determined by certain basic beliefs about nature, state and society, knowledge, and truth leading to four rationales for the mass media: the authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility and Soviet Communist models (ibid.: 2, 7). Four Theories of the Press has been widely criticized. Firstly, for its Cold War thinking dividing press systems only in a Soviet one and those of their Western enemies (Hallin, 2016: 3). Secondly, for its poor empirical analysis and the small range of cases making it hard to applicate the findings to other systems than the Soviet Union, United States, and the UK. Thirdly, for its homogeneous and static presentation of media systems (ibid.). Finally, it was also criticized for discussing only the political freedom of the media and not the economic restrictions rooted in market forces and ownership ties (Yin, 2008: 7).

Comparing Media Systems from Hallin and Mancini (2004) was the basic paper for most post-Four Theories research on national media systems. Hallin and Mancini analyzed eighteen liberal democracies in North America and Western Europe and proposed four main dimensions of comparison: development of media markets, political parallelism, journalistic professionalism, and the role of the state (ibid.: 218-219). These four categories are used in almost every further comparison of media systems. Political parallelism is the most controversial and maybe less transparent one. Hallin and Mancini define the term as “the extent to which the structure of the media system parallels the divisions of the political party and interest group system” (Hallin, 2016: 3). With the help of the four dimensions, three distinct patterns could be identified in the development of Western media systems: the North Atlantic or Liberal model, the North-Central European or Democratic Corporatist model, and the Mediterranean or Polarized Pluralist model (Hallin & Mancini, 2004: 219-230). Even though Hallin and Mancini admit “that media systems are not homogeneous, that different institutions or segments of a media system may operate according to different logics, depending on such factors as their market structure or the particular history of their formation” (Hallin, 2016: 4), their model is highly idealistic and not every country can be correlated with exact one of the three models. Norris, for example, criticizes the allocation of Great Britain to the Liberal Model (2009: 334; cf. also Brüggemann et al., 2014: 1043). She points out that it is hard to break down complex systems like national media structures only into four criterions.

The assignment from real type to ideal type is always connected with abstraction and the loss of some details. However, the solution can neither be to exclude countries that don’t fit into one of the models nor build one (e.g. the Polarized Pluralist model) that can be used as a wildcard for any country (ibid.: 331). Furthermore, Hallin and Mancini failed to theorize about types of media systems beyond the Western world. Another shortcoming is the missing inclusion of new media (ibid.: 332). Norris also criticizes the operationalization of some criteria. For example, political parallelism can only be investigated by content analysis but for Norris, this is highly subjective (ibid.: 335). Generally, she underlines the missing theoretical background of the criteria and the fact that no standardized measuring tools exist for media system research which is complicating the generalization of the propositions or findings (ibid.: 333-334). The theoretical framework has to be more precise, more standardized and intersubjective reasonable (ibid.: 323, 340).

Brüggemann et al. (2014) focus on both standardized measurements of Hallin and Macini’s dimensions and cluster analysis in order to identify a more differentiated typology of Western media systems. In addition, their findings show that media systems can change over time like already assumed by Voltmer (2008) and Norris (2009). However, research on long-term development of media systems is practically non-existent until now – a topic which has to be addressed in further comparative studies (Brüggemann et al., 2014: 1062-1063). Needless to say, several other shortcomings have to be addressed: the sources used to compare the different dimensions greatly vary regarding case numbers and objects of investigation. Analogous to the traditional media system research the investigation was mainly based on political communication, Western countries and mass media (ibid.: 1062). Moreover, the quantification of the dimensions is not always reasonable. Thus, breaking down complex social issues (like media systems) to numbers can neither provide detailed information nor give possible justification for the state of being. Brüggemann et al. therefore conclude: “For an in-depth understanding of individual cases, qualitative analyses remain the superior research strategy” (ibid.: 1062, Berner & Paal, 2016.) .
Hallin and Mancini-revisited: The De-Westernization of media system research
Recent comparative media system research mainly focuses on the frequently mentioned shortcomings of Siebert et al. and Hallin and Mancini. Especially the fact that only Western media systems were evaluated is seen as one of the biggest disadvantages. Many scholars thus try to applicate or adjust the categories provided by the forefathers of media system research when analyzing non-Western countries.

Studies about post-communist media systems in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union often usinge Hallin and Mancini’s Polarized Pluralist model as a basis of comparison which is predominantly applied in single country studies. General conclusions are rare. In most of the cases, it is observed that the examined countries are representing a mixture of the Polarized Pluralist and the Liberal model (due to a high degree of commercialization). Dobek-Ostrowska, for example, states that the Polish media system is a hybrid of these two models, even showing some features of the Democratic Corporatist model (Dobek-Ostrowska, 2012). Perusko (2013), to cite a second example, emphasizes that the Croatian media system fits perfectly the Polarized Pluralist model, which would show that Hallin and Mancini’s typology, to some extent, can also be applied to non-Western media systems (Perusko, 2013: 709). According to Perusko, the dominant perspective when regarding media systems in democratic transition is the imitation thesis which claims that European post-communist media systems are copying regulations and adopting Western media system characteristics (ibid.: 710; cf. also Zhao, 2011: 87). However, the development of Croatian media was strongly influenced by their historical roots which contradicts the assumption of the imitation thesis (Perusko, 2013: 721-722). The historical development of media systems also plays an important role for Mungiu-Pippidi who uses three different paths of development to distinguish between Eastern European media systems (2013: 40-42).

The Polarized Pluralist model also has been used as an analytical tool for Latin American media systems. Albuquerque criticizes that the Polarized Pluralist model is often used as a wildcard by many scholars: “such a broad use of the concept risks converting it into a catch-all concept that includes everything that does not fit into the other two models” (Albuquerque, 2012: 73). Thus, new categories have to be invented for further analysis. He also addresses that central aspects of Hallin and Mancini need to be re-discussed, such as the system of government (presidential or parliamentary) and the role of the media systems in relation to each other (cf. also imitation thesis). Guerrero and Márquez-Ramírez suggest the simultaneous occurrence of private ownership and commercialization and an instrumentalization by economic and political actors (“captured liberal model”) as new categories when studying Latin American media systems (Guerrero & Márquez Ramírez, 2014).

Current research on African media systems is scarce and stresses both the central role of the state in African societies (Hadland, 2012) and a “journalism of association, affiliation, and belonging” (Shaw, 2009: 498) often illustrated by the prevalence of partisan media. South Africa probably conforms to all of the traditional models but there is also a need for the development of further categories for analysis (Hallin, 2016: 11). According to Rodny-Gumede, African media development is influenced by factors such as race, class and gender. African media also would play an important role in nation building and constructing a common national identity (Rodny-Gumede, 2015: 133, 138). Anyway, the current de-westernized research has shown that traditional models are often not sufficient to investigate media systems and therefore need to be expanded. Furthermore, it is important to refrain from simply applying Western ideas on the media systems of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Hans Bredow Institute, Roger Blum & BRICS: collection of media system portraits
Of course, the project “Journalists’ autonomy around the globe” is not the very first try to go beyond the Western world by including more countries. The International Media Handbook, for example, can be seen as a classical piece of comparative media system research (Hans-Bredow-Institut, 2009). First published in 1957, it provides a detailed long-term description of media systems within and outside Europe supplemented by standardized tables which should ensure better comparability. The country reports are mostly written by experts who originate from the country they evaluate. This leads to a better insight in each media system, but can, again, result in bias due to subjectivity and possible partiality. After providing some basic data (e.g. state form, population, unemployment rate, language), the following categories are closely examined for each medium: legal and historical groundwork, organizations, offers, usage and newer developments. Furthermore, country-specific characteristics, like cultural traits, are observed. Since the structure, length, thematic focus and depth of the reports greatly vary, a comparison between several countries is barely possible. Moreover, the situation of journalists and media freedom are only mentioned in passing (Kutz, 2010).

Some of the world’s largest populations and fastest growing economies are usually excluded from the traditional Western view on media systems – the BRICS states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Mapping BRICS Media from Nordenstreng and Thussu (2015) tries to build a counter-flow to traditional Western media comparison models. In this book, leading experts describe how the formation and development of BRICS media influence media and communication worldwide. The detailed country reports do not follow a stringent and consistent model but rather concentrate on country-specific characteristics (e.g. the apartheid history of South Africa and its impact on present media regulations; Nordenstreng & Thussu, 2015: 181-182). The book’s aim is “to decrease the normativity of Western media theories and to introduce new approaches to shaping and ‘modelling’ media systems” (ibid.: 141). Important criteria describing those are: history, territories, nature of nation-state, culture, informal agreements, media and power relations, rules, norms and economy. Although these criteria miss theoretical background and homogeneity, this approach points out how important it is to have a closer look at country-specific characteristics that cannot only be explained by numbers (e.g. number of newspapers).

Another standard reference for comparing media systems is the German language book Lautsprecher und Widersprecher of the Swiss historian and media scholar Roger Blum. In a long-term study, he created twenty-three country reports by extending Hallin and Mancini’s approach. Overall eleven categories are used for evaluating the countries’ media systems, like historical development, political culture, media freedom, state form, state control, ownership structure, political parallelism, and professionalism. In each case, these categories can be classified either liberal, medium or regulated resulting in an evaluation pattern (Blum, 2014: 295). Blum uses an inductive approach: first the country portrait is written and afterwards points are assigned to each case. The scoring system is based on the pragmatic difference approach (ibid.: 294-296) which consists of three basic premises:

  • the analysis of media systems is based on the nation state,
  • evaluating differences between media systems (most different systems design) is more important than focusing on commonalities (most similar systems design) and
  • the fact that the media system is predominantly determined by the political system.
Blum identifies six media system models labeling all of them normative: Liberal, Public Service, Clientele, Shock, Patriot, and Command. The author thus wants to make an international comparison of media systems possible which seems to be a rather ambitious goal. The various sources used for the reports are statistics, ratings, online-sources, literature and research on site. Each essay begins with a detailed overview of the history and the political system of the country. Depending on relevance, several other categories (like demographics, geography or economic factors) are described. Based on these findings, certain media structures are finally outlined. The models seem well suited to organize different media systems and serve illustrative purposes – similarities and differences are depicted. However, the strong focus on historical and political groundings could divert attention from other important influencing factors of the media system. Furthermore, Blum excluded several criteria of analysis, like religion, culture, and decentralization of a country, but did not abide these self-imposed rules. Similar to the indices, the study also shows a lack of transparency regarding the scoring, which seems to be a rather subjective assessment (Behmer, 2015).
Expansion and revision of the original framework
Following, an overview of adaptions of the original framework is provided. The works of Yin (2008), Chakravartty & Roy (2013), Voltmer (2008) and Töpfl (2016) are used for further discussion of categories to describe and explain media systems. Beginning with Four Theories of the Press, one of the main critics is the prevalence of Western media systems. To put it different, it is quite difficult to fit, for example, Asian media systems in existing theories. Therefore, Yin (2008) re-examines the concept of the Four Theories. By focusing on cultures and ideologies she highlights differences between East and West like individualism versus state and family and civil liberties versus social order and stability (Yin, 2008: 40, 43). What individualism as a dominant way of thinking is for Western countries, is Confucianism in Eastern countries. Yin gives different examples of Asian media systems (e.g. Japan, Philippines, and South Korea). Finally, she presents a new model in comparing both Western and Eastern media systems consisting of the two contrasting pairs freedom and responsibility of the press which create the axes of a two-dimensional coordinate grid (ibid.: 46). The factor responsibility could also be interesting for other non-Western states where a responsible reporting is more important for the social order or national identity than individualism. Another point discussed by Yin is the importance of shared values in journalism (e.g. journalism culture, ibid.: 55). But even Yin admits that “one weakness of the model is perhaps that Western and Confucian philosophies and values tend to dominate the discussions even though there are so many other religious and philosophical influences in the world” (ibid.: 55).

Until now, media system research has mainly been based on the national level (Hallin, 2016: 5). Following a different approach, Chakravartty and Roy (2013) analyze sub-national differences in the relationship between media and politics in India. The authors conclude that different Indian states have both different party systems and different patterns of media ownership. Thus, a new typology of three Indian media systems is presented (Chakravartty & Roy, 2013: 360-364): direct partisan systems (media directly owned by political parties or supporters), indirect partisan systems (indirect control of the media exerted by various forms of pressure and patronage) and network systems (opaque, shifting alliances between media and political and economic actors). Chakravartty and Roy have shown that using the nation state as a basis for comparative research certainly has to be further discussed – especially in regard to big countries, which are often extremely internally diverse.

Beginning in the 1960s, there is a new wave of democratization in countries from Eastern and South Europe, Asia and Africa. Shared democratic values are often fragile. Former media system research has not really set a focus on those countries or regions. Voltmer (2013) focuses on transitional democracies and path dependencies. To analyze transitional media systems, she proposes to distinguish among types of authoritarianism and the nature of media/state relations. She distinguishes three pathways of democratization:

  • military dictatorship in Latin America,
  • communist oligarchy in Eastern Europe, and
  • one-party dictatorship in Asia and Africa.
Following Hallin and Mancini’s approach, Voltmer discusses the particular arrangements of media system transition following these pathways. The new democracies are influenced by foreign (role) models and the global media economy dominated by few conglomerates. One of Voltmer’s assumptions is that there is no zero hour. Structure and function of a new regime are limited by specific characteristics of the old one. Journalists and media organizations keep on working with their “old” self-perception but within a new regime. Hence, it is important to know the traditional and cultural backgrounds of the journalists’ role perceptions besides the requirements of the audience. Therefore, Western models of media systems cannot be easily applied to new democracies. “Instead, new hybrid forms of political communication are emerging that blend liberal ideals of a free press with the trajectories of the past, indigenous values and the constraints and experiences of transition” (Voltmer, 2008: 23).

A completely different approach is used by Töpfl (2016) adapting discourse analysis to evaluate the media-politics discourse dominant in Russia in 2012/13. By applying a de-westernized version of the original categories of Siebert et al. to a news program he is able to identify three paradoxes of the Russian media system (ibid.: 1536). The approach helps to get a deeper understanding of media systems and their logic and can resolve apparent paradoxes. However, good language skills and cultural knowledge are needed in order to be able to read between the lines.
Based on the aforementioned research, the following categories have proven to be important for our study. Different papers (Yin, Chakravartty & Roy, Blum) emphasized the importance of the natural and social context for the analysis of media systems. This includes topography, geography and infrastructure, as well as values and norms, religions, demography, education, civil society, economy, academia, media access and usage. Furthermore, media systems are influenced by their history, especially their path dependency (e.g. Blum, BRICS, Hans-Bredow-Institut, Mungiu-Pippidi, Norris, Perusko, Voltmer). External influences can be exerted by foreign agents, for instance world powers, neighbor countries or NGOs (e.g. Albuquerque, Rankings, Yin). Taking into account the interlocking of the political system and the media system, the state form and political agents of a country have also to be analyzed, as they have an impact on communication policies and regulations (e.g. constitution, media laws and code of ethics; e.g. Albuquerque, Blum, BRICS, Chakravartty & Roy, Hadland, Hallin & Mancini, Hans-Bredow-Institut, Siebert et al., Voltmer). Besides political control, the ownership of the media system is a crucial factor: who owns the media (state vs. private ownership and concentration vs. pluralism) and which key media offers are used (e.g. BRICS, Guerrero and Márquez-Ramírez, Hans Bredow Institute)? At the individual level, it has to be taken into account that media producers are influenced by several factors, like education, financing, associations, self-control and role-perceptions (e.g. Rodny-Gumede, Shaw, Yin).

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Related Links
Recommended citation form:
Katharina Dorn, Julia Traunspurger: Media System Research. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

Collected works for media system research.