Theories of Press

Tripti Malhotra

Mass media does not operate in a vacuum, the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates. Normative theories were first proposed by Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm in their book called “Four Theories of the Press”. At first the word “Normative Theory” was pronounced in USA during the height of ‘cold war’ with communism and soviet. Often it called as western theories of mass media.

A Normative theory describes an ideal way for a media system to be controlled and operated by the government, authority, leader and public. These theories are basically different from other communication theories because normative theories of press are not providing any scientific explanations or prediction.  At the same these “four theories of the press” came from many sources rather than a single source.  Sometimes media practitioners, social critics and academics also involved to develop these normative theories.Normative theories are more focused in the relationship between Press and the Government than press and the audience. These theories are more concern about the ownership of the media and who controls the press or media in the country.

By contrast, normative statements affirm how things should or ought to be, how tovalue them, which things are good or bad. Normative theories are divided into the following categories.


Long before the democratic societies could think of matters pertaining to freedom of speech, there existed a thought that the emergence of media should not challenge the writ of the government which were more in dictatorial form and less they looked like democracies. The media was forced to remain under state control. It had following features which, in non democrati governments still rule on media:


a)      Direct governmental control of the media. Typical to pre-democratic societies, where the government consists of very small ruling-class.

b)      No printing that could undermine the established authority or offense to existing political set up.

c)       The government may punish anyone who questions the state’s ideology and the Media professionals are not allowed to have any independence within the media organization.

d)      Registration of the media by the state.


This theory developed in the 16th and 17th centuries and was mainly based on absolute power of the monarchy (truth). It was essential that the Press supports monarchy and couldn’t criticise it. This approach was designed to protect the established social order, setting clear limits to media freedom and ensure that it is not the media which must talk about people and their problems in any manner.According to this theory, mass media, though not under the direct control of the State, had to follow its bidding.

This Theory Envisages:

i.            The government consists of a very limited and small ruling-class and media are not allowed to print or broadcast anything which could undermine the established authority of the government.

ii.            Any offense to the existing political values should be avoided and the government may punish anyone who questions the state’s ideology.

iii.            The government is infallible and the media professionals are therefore not allowed to have any independence within the media organization.

iv.            Foreign media are subordinate to the established authority, in that all imported media products are controlled by the state.

Under an Authoritarian approach in Western Europe, freedom of thought was jealously guarded by a few people (ruling classes), who were concerned with the emergence of a new middle class and were worried about the effects of printed matter on their thought process. Steps were taken to control the freedom of expression. The result was advocacy of complete dictatorship. The theory promoted zealous obedience to a hierarchical superior and reliance on threat and punishment to those who did not follow the censorship rules or did not respect authority. Censorship of the press was justified on the ground that the State always took precedence over the individual’s right to freedom of expression.

This theory stemmed from the authoritarian philosophy of Plato (407 – 327 B.C), who thought that the State was safe only in the hands of a few wise men. Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), a British academician, argued that the power to maintain order was sovereign and individual objections were to be ignored. Engel, a German thinker further reinforced the theory by stating that freedom came into its supreme right only under Authoritarianism.The world has been witness to authoritarian means of control over media by both dictatorial and democratic governments.

This theory essentially applies to authoritarian societies, but can surface in less authoritarian societies(particularly in times of war, terrorism). It depends on the medium/ media of press subject to a greater control in some countries. The Propaganda model of Chomsky and Herman alleges systemic biases in the mass media and seeks to explain them in terms of structural economic causes. There are certain assumptions attached to the Authoritarian approach, which are as follows:

a)      Press should do nothing to under mine vested power and interests;

b)      Press should be subordinate to vested power and authority;

c)       Press should avoid acting in contravention of prevailing moral and political values;

d)      Censorship justified in the application of these principles;

e)      Criminalisation of editorial attacks on vested power, deviations from official policy, violation of moral codes.

f)        Media is an instrument/ mouthpiece to publicise and propagandise government ideology and actions.

g)      Absolute power of state versus subservience of the individual ᾶ press.

These assumptions in turn help us in understanding the basic premise of the theory. It explains the principles on which this theory is based and the approach which the authoritarian society used to follow. The biggest examples of this theory are :Fascist regimes, some African countries, communist countries, Aspects of apartheid etc.



This theory is just in contrast to the authoritarian approach to media. The founding fathers of this theory (Milton, Locke, Mills) propounded that Press informs, entertains, sells and helps in discovering the truth. It is a free marketplace of ideas where anyone can publish hos/ her views and expressions but cannot defame or be obscene. There shall be minimum checks and balances by the government. The libertarians had a very modern approach which was quintessential to serve the purposes of the modern society based on rise of democracy, religious freedom, expansion of economic freedom, philosophical climate of the enlightenment, undermined authoritarianism ᾶ emphasison personal freedom and democracy. The reason behind the said philosophy was that people are rational and can distinguish between truth and falsehood, and between good and evil and therefore, be allowed to express their views and expressions.

Here media enjoys an absolute freedom of expression. Its prominent features are as follows:

a)      Competitive exposure of alternative viewpoints.

b)      Attacks on the government’s policies are accepted and even encouraged: the media as a watch dog.

c)       Journalists and media professionals ought to have full autonomy within the media organization.

d)      There is no explicit connection between the government and the media.

e)      The press is free from censorship

f)        It is accountable to the law for any consequences of its activities that infringe other individuals’ rights or the legitimate claims of the society.

g)      In rebelling against authoritarian theory early libertarians argued that there should be no laws governing media operations. Free press means that all forms of media must be totally unregulated.

The Early Libertarians argued that if individuals could be freed from arbitrary limits on communication imposed by church and state, they would “naturally” follow the dictates of their conscience, seek truth, engage in public debate, and ultimately create a better life for themselves and others. They believed strongly in the power of unrestricted public debate and discussion to create more natural way of structuring society. In AEROPAGETICA, a powerful libertarian published in 1644 by ,John Milton asserted that:”In a fair debate good and truthful arguments will always win out over lies and deceit. If this is true it followed, then a new and better social order could be forged using public debate.”

These libertarian principles were also adopted in the “Bill of Rights”. (First 10 amendments to U.S.constitution). It asserted that all individuals have natural rights no government, community, or group can unduly infringe upon or take away. The ability to exercise dissent, to band together with others to resist laws that people find to be wrong, to print or broadcast ideas, opinions and beliefs- all of these rights are proclaimed as central to democratic self government.

Unfortunately, most early libertarians had a unrealistic view of how long it would take to find the”truth” and establish an ideal social order. In the 18th century it became clear that “truth” couldn’t be quickly or easily established, some libertarians became discouraged. They drifted between libertarian and authoritarian views. But despite the priority given to communication freedom, one sees number of restrictions on communication, accepted by media practitioners and media consumers.Examples can be : Libel -laws to check the publication of information that will damage reputations; Laws against offensive language, pornography, information that would interfere with a defendant’s right to a fair trial etc.Whenever new media technologies are invented, it is necessary to decide how they should be regulated.

The debate over communication freedom never ends, sometimes the balance shifts toward expanding freedom and other times, freedom is curtailed.The question is why it is necessary to place limits on communication freedom, What happens when groups attempt to stir up hatred and resentment against racial or ethnic minorities, Should media practitioners be allowed to invade our homes, publish erroneous information or deceive public with false advertising, Do media professionals have the right to produce and distribute any thing that will earn profits, or should some limits be placed on them. The protection of dignity, reputation, property, privacy, moral development of individuals, groups,minorities, evens the security of the state no infringement accepted from media.Such an extensive freedom is also a problem as all people have the right to speak and receive information freely, but no one takes responsibility of the wrong doings. The ethics in multicultural or pluralistic societies vary from place to place; hence there is always complaint against the media of each other’s society This movement is based on the right of an individual, and advocates absence of restraint. The basis of this theory dates back to 17th century England when the printing press made it possible to print several copies of a book or pamphlet at cheap rates. The State was thought of as a major source of interference on the rights of an individual and his property. Libertarians regarded taxation as institutional theft. Popular will(voxpopuli) was granted precedence over the power of State.

Advocates of this theory were Lao Tzu, an early 16th century philosopher, John Locke of Great Britain in the17th century, John Milton and John Stuart Mill. Milton referred to a self righting process if free expression is permitted “let truth and falsehood grapple.” In 1789, the French, in their Declaration Of The Rights Of Man, wrote “Every citizen may speak, write and publish freely.” Out of such doctrines came the idea of a “free marketplace of ideas.” George Orwell defined libertarianism as “allowing people to say things you do not want to hear”. Libertarians argued that the press should be seen as the Fourth Estate reflecting public opinion.What the theory offers, in sum, is power without social responsibility.

Classical liberal perspective envisages the following:

a)      Free market as foundation of free media;

b)      Freedom to publish without prior restriction ᾶ independence from government;

c)       Public has access to wide diversity of opinion (only limitation on freedom to publish is public willingness to pay);

d)      Market-based diversity promotes public rationality ᾶ free marketplace of ideas and information as a self-righting mechanism, minimises bias and exposes weak arguments and evidence.

Another strand in liberal tradition presents Media as representative agency or as a watch dog protecting the public (individuals rights),overseeing the state. Wherein the Watchdog reveals and abuses in the exercise of state authority. This role overrides all other functions of the media and dictates the form in which the media should be organised, i.e. the free market.As newspapers gradually lost their party affiliations, journalists worked to establish their independence as searchers after objective truth. Independence from government control and influence ᾶ if media is subject to public regulation it will lose its bite as a watch dog.

Press is source of information and plat form for expression of a range of divergen to pinions; enables people to monitor government and form ideas about policy.But, society seen as an aggregation of individualsᾶ media. As representative role conceived primarily in terms of articulating public opinion, which is the sum of individual opinion. How should media relate to representative structures as distinct from individuals ᾶrole of media in mediating class and other conflict in society.

However, Freedom of press can be abused. Absolute freedom is anarchy. Abolition of censorship; but, also the introduction of press laws designed to protect individual rights (protection of reputation, privacy, moral development of individuals or groups, security of the state)ᾶ could override the right of the press.

Lastly, this theory also entails certain ASSUMPTIONS that help in understanding the basic premise of this theory:

a)      Press should be free from any external censorship;

b)      Publication and distribution should be accessible to any individual or group with a permit or license;

c)       Attacks on governments or parties should not be punishable;

d)      No coercion to publish anything;

e)      Freedom of access to information.

f)        libertarian view rests on the idea that the individual should be free to publish whatever he or she likes attacks on the government’s policies are fully accepted and even encouraged

g)      no restrictions on import or export of media messages across the national frontiers

h)      journalists and media professionals have full autonomy within the media organization.


With the revolution in Russia in 1917, and practice of Marxism, there appeared a very different approach to deal with media. The media was tied to overall communist ideas and defined in a very different way. The theory to control media possessed following features:


a)      Closely tied to the communist ideology.

b)      The media is collective agitator, propagandist and educator in the building of communism.

c)       No private ownership of the media.

d)      The government is superior to the media institutions.

e)      The media is supposed to be serious.

f)        The soviet theory does not favor free expression, but proposes a positive role for the media, the society andthe world.

g)      Press contributes to success of the state.

h)      Only legal party members can publish and no one can criticize party.

i)        Government has “influence” over the press.

j)        closely tied to a specific ideology—the communist

k)      media organizations in this system are not intended to be privately owned and are to serve the interests of the working class

l)        both the soviet and the authoritarian acknowledge the government as superior to the media institutions.

m)    The mass media in the Soviet model are expected to be self-regulatory with regard to the content of their messages


The Soviet theory differs from the authoritarian theory in that the media organizations have a certain responsibility to meet the wishes of their audience.This theory is derived from the ideologies of Marx and Engel that “the ideas of the ruling classes are the ruling ideas”. It was thought that the entire mass media was saturated with bourgeois ideology. Lenin thought of private ownership as being incompatible with freedom of press and that modern technological means of information must be controlled for enjoying effective freedom of press.The theory advocated 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.


This theory keeps certain areas free for the Press but at the same time puts lot of responsibility on media. As discussed in the beginning that the media is not just seen as an enterprise like others in the business sector of any society, but due to its unique nature, society expects a particular role which media must play in getting rid of social evils, educating people, criticizing government policies and exposing other wrong doings in a society. The sense of responsibility has been emphasized more in this theory as compared to any other. The basic premise of the theory is as follows:

a)      Media has certain obligations to society.

b)      It must show truth, accuracy, objectivity, and balance.

c)       The media should be free but self-regulated (codes of conduct, and ethics)

d)      The media according to this theory is pluralistic: diversity of society, various points of view, forum for ideas.

e)      The media ownership is a public trust. Therefore, a journalist is accountable to his audience / readers.


MCQUAIL has further enlisted certain other premises of this theory, which are as follows/ THEORY IN POINTS:

a)      Media have important function to fulfil in society(support democratic political principles);

b)      Media are under obligation to fulfil their social functions(transmission of information and creation of a forum for different viewpoints);

c)       Independence of media emphasised in relation to their responsibility towards society;

d)      Media should meet certain standards.

e)      Media should accept responsibilities towards society;

f)        Media should fulfil responsibilities by setting professional standards with regards to the supply of information and the truth, accuracy,objectivity and balance of their reporting;

g)      Media should apply self-regulation;

h)      Media should avoid publicising information that can lead to crime, violence or social disruption,as well as information that can offend ethnic or religious minorities;

i)        Media collectively should represent all social groups and reflect the diversity of society by giving people access to a variety of view point sand opportunity to react to them.Society is entitled to high standards and intervention justifiable if the media fail to meet these standards.

j)        Everyone should have access to press (letters, opinions)


According to the theory media must be controlled by community opinion and ethics. Media cannot violate people’s rights. Press can be free and be comprehensive and objective but at the same time must be socially responsible. The social responsibility theory is an outgrowth of the libertarian theory. However, social responsibility goes beyond “objective” reporting to “interpretive” reporting.media has certain obligations to society which it must fulfil in all circumstances:

  • Informativeness
  • Truth
  • Accuracy
  • Objectivity
  • Balance


Media as a whole is pluralized, indicating “a reflection of the diversity of society as well as access to various points of view”. A truthful, complete account of the news is not necessarily enough today, notes the Commission on the Freedom of the Press: “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.” Today’s complex world often necessitates analysis, explanation, and interpretation. The emerging theory does not deny the rationality of man, although it puts far less confidence in it than the libertarian theory, but it does seem to deny that man is innately motivated to search for truth and to accept it as his guide. Under the social responsibility theory, man is viewed not so much irrational as lethargic. He is capable of using his reason but he is loath to do so.If man is to remain free, he must live by reason instead of passively accepting what he sees, hears, and feels. Therefore, the more alert elements of the community must goad him into the exercise of his reason. Without such goading man is not likely to be moved to seek truth. The languor which keeps him from using his gift of reason extends to all public discussion. Man’s aim is not to find truth but to satisfy his immediate needs and desires.

It is the press, therefore, that must be the “more alert element” and keep the public informed, for an informed populace is the cornerstone of democracy.Today’s large media conglomerates, however, may not function naturally as a public forum, where all ideas are shared and available. “The owners and managers of the press determine which persons, which facts, which versions of these facts, shall reach the public,” writes the Commission.In this same light, Siebert, Peterson and Schramm warn:

“…the power and near monopoly position of the media impose on them an obligation to be socially responsible, to see that all sides are fairly presented and that the public has enough information to decide; and that if the media do not take on themselves such responsibility it may be necessary for some other agency of the public to enforce it.”

The Canons of Journalism, adopted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors addresses these same obligations when it calls on newspapers to practice responsibility to the general welfare, sincerity, truthfulness, impartiality, fair play, decency, and respect for the individual’s privacy.Siebert, Peterson and Schramm also note that “freedom of expression under the social responsibility theory is not an absolute right, as under pure libertarian theory….One’s right to free expression must be balanced against the private rights of others and against vital social interests.”

Western media are controlled by capitalist economic interests (prevent them from publishing the Marxist truth).Communist press is equivalent to no profit motive. But it does not mean that it did not foreground special and elite interests in Soviet society. This theory at all times upholds the principle of social responsibility and works in the interest of public at large. It may therefore be understood that:


a)      Media should act in the interests of and be controlled by the working class;

b)      Media should not be under private control;

c)       Media should perform positive functions for society, such as socialisation (to make people conform to desirable norms), education, the supply of information, motivation and mobilisation of the masses;

d)      Media should respond to the desire and needs of their recipients;

e)      Society has right to use censorship and other legal measures to prevent and punish antisocial publication;

f)        Media should reflect complete and objective view of world and society in terms of Marxist-Leninist principles;

g)      Media should support communist movements everywhere.


A brief critique of libertarian and social responsibility theories/ A political critique:

a)      Journalism in capitalist societies functions in the interests not of society as a whole,but of dominant groups and classes.

b)      Concepts like free press, democracy, the public interest, objectivity, neutrality seen as myths.

c)       All research processes ᾶ including journalism ᾶ seen as value-laden and methodological decisions political.

d)      There is Concentration of ownership and control of media (lack of diversity), and the declining vitality of publicly funded media/cultural institutions like public broadcasters (due to privatisation).


There are a number of other problems with modern media:

  • Lack of democracy within media organisations;
  • Governmental secrecy;
  • In stitutionalised racist and patriarchal codes;
  • Commodification of culture
  • The democratic process requires the participation of ordinary citizens as much as those who are prominent.
  • Bias against independent thinking.
  • Journalists have to remain impartial and value neutral ᾶ therefore no longer the need nor the opportunity to develop a critical perspective from which to assess the events, the issues, the personalities he or she is assigned to cover.
  • Bias against the journalist: Objectivity in journalism effectively erodes the very foundation on which rests a responsible press.


It is utmost essential to understand that news is never a mere recording or reporting of the world but a synthetic, value-laden account which carries within it dominant as sumptionsand ideas of the society within which it is produced.Media practices do not reflect a genuine public spiritedness but rather a concern to boost sales or improve ratings. The increasing media emphasis on infotainment has accompanied the depoliticising of civil society.For example, it likely would not be socially responsible to report how the terrorist, using some new method, evaded security measures and smuggled a bomb onto a commercial airline.


Idealism and Press Theories:

Many of these theories have reflected Western idealism and championship of a Western perspective of democracy. The work of Picard (1985) is no exception. Here viewed previous categories of state–press relations and added a further concept,that of the democratic socialist theory of the press. This theory argued that the press’s purposes are to provide an avenue for expression of public views and to fuel the political and social debates necessary for the continued development of democratic governance. Under the umbrella of the theory, the role of the state is to ensure the ability of citizens to use the press and to preserve and promote media plurality.


HATCHEN’S addition:

Hachten also proposed five theories or concepts of the press emphasizing politics and economics: authoritarian, Western, Communist, revolutionary, and developmental or third world. His conception of authoritarianism was similar to that of Siebert and Lowenstein. However, his Western concept encompassed both the libertarian and social-responsibility models with its defining characteristic being that it is relatively free of arbitrary government controls. Under the Communist concept, media are tools that serve as implements of revelation (by revealing purposes and goals of party leaders) as well as instruments of unity and consensus. The main difference between authoritarian and Communist systems is ownership. In authoritarian systems, press can be privately owned as opposed to state ownership in Communist systems. Hachten defined the revolutionary concept as being illegal and subversive mass communication utilizing the press. Finally, the developmental model was seen to have arisen out of a combination of Communist ideas, anti-Americanism, and social-responsibility ideals.

Hachten saw the defining characteristic of this concept as being the idea that individual rights must be subordinated to the larger goals of nation-building and thus must support authority. This concept is also seen to be an egative response to the Western model. However, his classification never yields a clear distinction of the press systems, for the analytical dimensions are defined both under the system of the state (authoritarian, Western, Communist)and the functions of the media (revolutionary and developmental).



Work on categorization of national press systems in the last 40 years has been grounded in the well-known Four Theories of the Press. Whereas this approach has been strongly criticized by international scholars for its idealism and its poverty of empiricism, it is still widely taught in introductory journalism courses across the country, and few theorists have engaged in grounding the theory with data in international settings. Although journalism is contextualized and constrained by press structure and state policies, it is also a relatively autonomous cultural production of journalists negotiating between their professionalism and state control.

The world order has changed greatly in the last decade. Many of the old frameworks—including those of the media such as the Four Theories of the Press (Four Theories)—are obsolete and inapplicable for contemporary analysis. The new order has already annulled their explanatory power. We need new ideas to account for the development of our internationalized and diverse forms of media. The theories are hardly applicable to the current scenario.



Not confined to the extent of theories, the media always faces (and is open to) criticism and social scientists always keep this debate open as how best media could be used to improve functioning of civil society and promotion of democratic sense and practices. In their view if people’s knowledge, understandings, capabilities, and actions are manufactured, its imultaneously follows that they can be developed, improved, and individualized in proper (ideal-democratic) circumstances.Among these circumstances, proper communication networks are inevitable.Because of new developments, the relationship among the state, private sectors, markets, and civil society profoundly changed during the 1980s.

In politically and economically advanced societies the change is based on new information and telecommunications technologies, which affected the media industries in terms of economic restructuring, and on a new social and political environment, as reflected by media contents.Training and continuing development of professionalism can be done to advance and nurtur balanced and impartial news presentation.Professionalism implies standards and procedures, which means journalists tend to act as responsible members of the political establishment, upholding the dominant political perspective.




  1. Akhavan-Majid, R., & Wolf, G. (1991). American mass media and the myth of libertarianism: Towardan “elite power group” theory. Critical Studies in Mass Communication.
  2. Dominick, J. R. (1994). The dynamics of mass communication. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Hachten, W. (1981). The world news prism. Ames: Iowa State University.
  4. Hall, S. (1982). The rediscovery of ideology. In J. Curran, M. Gurevitch, & J. Woollacott (Eds.), Mass communication and society (pp. 56–90). London: Edward Arnold.
  5. McQuail, D. (1994). Mass communication theory: An introduction. London: Sage.
  6. M. Gurevitch, T. Bennett, J. Curran, & J. Woollacott (Eds.), Culture, society and the media(pp. 118–150). London: Methuen.
  7. Siebert, F., Peterson, T., & Schramm, W. (1956). Four theories of the press: The authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet communist concepts of what the press should be and do.
  8. Beyond the Four Theories of the Press: A New Model of National Media Systems, Jennifer Ostini Sydney, Australia, Anthony Y. H. Fung, School of Journalism and Communication, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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