The Media for Democracy Monitor

Theoretical Framework

Models of contemporary democracies

Democracy refers to the principle that all power in society is rooted in the people and that government is accountable to the people; it also refers to equality, which is best understood in relation to the principle of ‘one man, one vote’; but it also refers to the process of decision-making, where those affected by decisions should participate in decisions. Democracy is a principle of governance and a method of decision-making.

It is based on the fundamental rights of citizens, which correspond with Human Rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression. for our research purpose, it is of prime interest how democratic governing and decision-making processes are incorporated into the conduct of leading news media. Two levels of analysis follow:

At the meso (company) level, we focus on how democratic leading news media make relevant decisions and how democratic processes are enacted within newsrooms and media organizations. At the macro (state) level, democracy can be analyzed against the background of how the Human Right to freedom of expression is enacted and what variations of democratic governance affect the performance of news media.

Media companies (meso level) are not democratic by nature. Nonetheless, democratic values are of importance to them, as they claim to be the main institutional addressees of freedom of speech rules. The beneficiaries would be the public at large. In other words, media companies profit from and their independence is rooted in this fundamental democratic right to free expression. At the same time, democratic procedures of decision-making are not widespread within media organizations. publicly owned public service media organizations aside, private commercial media companies are in most cases either family businesses or shareholder companies. A small minority of media companies, most of them in the alternative or ‘third sector’, are organized as cooperatives or similar forms of institutionalization. Very few media companies are owned by the newsroom staff (e.g., Der Spiegel in Germany).

“If hardly anyone today disputes democracy as a worthy goal, not everyone expects it to apply to their own decisions and activities. Newspaper editors (…) often champion democratic values on their editorial pages but seldom apply those values in their own newsrooms. And editors usually see no irony in the gap between what they preach and what they practice, because for them democracy denotes a form of government and not a set of requirements aimed at private persons and their private enterprises.” (Glasser 2009: 92)

Newsroom democracy can take different forms. Consultation, participation, codecision, or ultimately voting in elections represent different procedures of democratic decision-making, for example when a new editor-in-chief is implemented. In such cases, those affected by the decision (newsroom staff) participate in the decisionmaking. These kinds of procedures can therefore be considered democratic. But also day-to-day editorial decisions can be made either by consultation and deliberation, or by one person in his/her own capacity and on his/her responsibility. What makes democratic procedures within newsrooms or media companies such a critical matter is the division of power within the organization. The implementation of democratic decisions always means loss of power for some and empowerment of others. procedures may take more time, and it is uncertain whether the ultimate decisions will be better, but there is an important advantage of democratic newsroom procedures. Journalists whose profession it is to explain the democratic decision-making of others (parliament, government, etc.) to the public should personally experience the strengths and weaknesses of such procedures at their own workplace. Moreover, such democratic procedures might ultimately benefit the media company as well. Journalists who have a say within their own newsrooms can be expected to be intrinsically motivated and to work better.

At the macro (state) level, democracies are usually divided into two models or traditions (Held 2006). Civic republicanism, rooted in the french Revolution and represented in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is based on “each citizen’s commitment to a civic culture that transcends individual preferences and private interests” (Glasser 2009: 94); procedural liberalism, in contrast, is more an AngloAmerican concept with John Locke and Thomas Hobbes as its early proponents. Liberal democracy in this tradition can be conceptualized as “essentially procedural mechanism designed to facilitate the expression of individual preferences” (ibid.). Both traditions refer to the same two basic constituents: liberty and equality.

While republican democracy is further subdivided into several categories, liberal democracy is described in political science theory as rather uniform. Starting from Locke and Hobbes, this concept was further developed by Joseph Schumpeter. In his view, democracy means government for the people, but definitely not government by the people (Schumpeter 1976). for good reasons, scholars characterized this model of democracy as “elitist” (Baker 2002: 129ff). Decisions are made by informed and competent elites, who are elected by the people. Elections are the time when these elites are held to account. This extensive delegation of power is justified by citizens’ lack of interest in governing themselves and their lack of the necessary expertise to do so effectively (Glasser 2009: 94). The democratic role of journalism and the media is to identify and make public the wrongdoings of elected representatives.

”In this vision of democracy, the responsibilities of the press are minimal but crucial. Elections are more likely to deter corruption and reward effective elite response to popular needs if the press effectively exposes transgressions and incompetence that could contribute to the electoral defeat of those currently governing.” (Baker 2006: 114)

In other words, the essential role of the press in elitist liberal democracies is that of watchdogs who alert people if something is going wrong. Constant information about day-to-day routines is of little importance, as people normally have neither the time nor the interest to follow the routine business of their elected representatives. Consequently, Zaller (2003) coined the term the Burglar Alarm standard. Given the assumption that it is beyond the capacity of many people to follow closely political developments, Zaller claims that it would be sufficient to limit political reporting to serious problems requiring attention. Such an alarm-based standard would focus the interest of the people on the really important public issues. Such a model confronts journalism with a considerable burden. “The alarm standard does, however, impose one serious constraint on news: Journalists cannot talk about every potential problem because their audience would ignore them; it is the job of reporters – in cooperation with political and interest groups –  to decide what requires attention and bring it to the public” (2003: 121). Journalists become not only gate-keepers of political news, they decide for the people what the really important issues are – and what can be left outside public observation. Such decisions require highly skilled and responsible journalists, able to identify in their daily routines those issues that might eventually become important enough to be brought to the attention of the mass audience. In turn, people in their capacity as citizens depend critically on the heavily restricted choices of journalists.

Republican concepts of democracy emphasize the active role of citizens in exercising freedom of expression. These concepts rely on dialogue and debate within a democratic society, rather than on decisions made by elected, though elitist, representatives. In a republican democracy, “the epistemological hope is that those speakers with better arguments will prevail over those without – and this hope presumably requires that these better arguments ultimately gather larger audiences” (Baker 2007: 11). Therefore, the most characteristic element of republicanism in this sense is “its insistence on the active participation of citizens in democratic self-governance. (…) Republicanism asserts that democracy requires civic virtues from its citizens, (…)” (Dahlgren 2007: 59).

Republican democracies come in different shades. Glasser suggests distinguishing pluralist, civic and direct models of republican democracy. While the former model is characterized by the competition of different groups in society, the civic model depends on a civic culture that cultivates different voices and different points of views. Journalism is required to accommodate these differences. The latter direct model is the most radical proposition and rejects any accumulation or distribution of resources “that would have the effect of creating unequal opportunities for political participation” (Glasser 2009: 104). In a direct democracy, he continues, “freedom of the press exists to serve the interests of the community, not the interests of journalists and their managers” (ibid.).

In his own classification, Baker suggests the term complex for the most sophisticated form of democracy. In such a complex democracy, decisions are only made after exhaustive deliberation processes. He argues that

“(…) the complex democrat recognizes that a group’s interests and identity are not preformed and are often in need of internal clarification. Rather, the group’s interests are also properly the subject of discursive deliberation. Without adequate opportunities for these internal deliberations, groups, especially weaker or otherwise marginalized groups, will not be able to enter into any broader public sphere equipped for rational participation but rather empirically will be much more likely to be submerged into or dominated by the perspectives of more dominant groups.” (Baker 2006: 119)

In complex democracies the “(…) media should support varying types of discourses – bargaining discourses of the liberal pluralist, discourses aimed at the common good emphasized by republicans, and smaller self-definitional as well as minority cultural discourses especially important to the fairness of the democratic participation of smaller or otherwise marginal groups” (ibid.).

A similar classification is offered by Strömbäck, who argues that democracy is not just an institutional arrangement for elections, but rather a forum for people engaged in public life and different types of political action. Participatory democracy thrives when people engage in and work for their causes. “The stronger civil society is, and the more social capital a society has, the more democracy thrives” (Strömbäck 2005: 336). Similar to Baker’s complex model and Glasser’s direct model, Strömbäck’s most challenging democracy model refers to active citizens who make collective decisions based on an exchange of arguments. This deliberative model of democracy is based on discussions in the public sphere, values of rationality, impartiality, intellectual honesty and equality, as well as on means of producing agreement or better understanding (ibid.).

In these dialogue- and deliberation-based models of democracy, journalism has not only the obligation to inform about potentially crucial issues (as in the elitist model), but also to act as a forum for the debate; the media should inspire people to participate in the public discourse, and journalism should give voice to groups that need to express themselves in public to make their cause heard.

Such concepts of highly deliberative democracies are criticized for being unrealistic and for underestimating the problems that arise exactly from deliberation. Dahlgren argues that deliberation is not free from social stratification and that (new) hierarchies are established in accordance with the communicative competence and skills of speakers and groups of speakers.

“Deliberative democracy asserts that meaningful political discussion can only take place if all participants are on an equal footing, that is, if respect, a pluralist outlook, and reciprocity prevail. (…) In fact, one could ask: given that the distribution of communicative skills tends to follow general social hierarchies, and thereby may well serve to reinforce such hierarchies, why should we expect citizens with lower communicative skill to participate, and why should we anticipate that deliberative democracy is a good way for citizens to impact on the decisions that affect them?” (Dahlgren 2006: 31)

There is no easy answer to this worrying question. However, in complex or deliberative democracies, journalism is required to take factors that privilege some speakers over others into account when it attempts to enable groups and people to express themselves and make their causes heard.

Whatever model of democracy is taken into account, liberal-procedural or republican – or, more realistically, a mixture of different models – journalism is confronted with normative expectations of various kinds. And journalism itself is subject to internal democratic procedures. The more sophisticated democracy becomes in terms of deliberation, the higher the expectations of journalistic performance become and the more professional – and democratic – excellence is required.

Democratic roles of journalism and media

The existence of different models of democracy implies that we should try to define the roles of journalism and the media according to these models. Liberal-procedural democracies require watchdog journalism on high alert concerning corruption, abuse of power and things going wrong in general. Moreover, journalism in these democracies needs antennas sensitive to developments that may eventually become important enough to be brought to the attention of the people. Within republican democracies, the role of journalism – on top of being watchdogs – is dedicated to offering different groups access to the general public and to facilitating deliberation and discourse.

This distinction looks artificial. While republican democracies require the whole set of journalistic virtues to function, liberal-procedural would only need the watchdog element. Such a reductionist view would be misleading. Both in times of conflict and corruption, as well as in times when such events are (temporarily) absent, legitimate (and even illegitimate) claims of groups, pressure groups and lobbies are articulated. Some of these claims may be urgent and justify the immediate attention of journalism. But others may require public debate and deliberation over some time in order to mature, to explain, or even to develop their justification in public dialogue. These maturing processes require public attention, and journalism is indispensable in evaluating, discussing, dismissing or accepting such claims. Thus far, digital communication technologies have not provided enough alternative opportunities to fully substitute this discursive role of journalism (see the whole chapter “Why Democracy Needs Media Monitoring” in our book for arguments).

It would seem reasonable, therefore, to develop a set of journalistic roles in democracies, without further distinction along the lines of different models of democracy. Some roles may be more important in certain circumstances than in others, but fundamentally, the roles and virtues of journalism in democracies are inseparable and universal.

One recent and comprehensive attempt to systematize the role of journalism in democracies was undertaken by McQuail. He starts out by describing the basic tasks of journalism as observing and informing, participating in public life by way of comment, advice and advocacy and providing a forum or platform for different voices (2009: 116). He then suggests four different roles2:

  • The monitorial role addresses information provision by journalism to the general public. people need and require orientation, and journalistic information should be able to provide points of reference. The monitorial role refers to “all aspects of the collection, processing, and dissemination of information of all kinds about current and recent events, plus warnings about future developments” (ibid., 125).
  • The facilitative role covers all aspects of the provision of a deliberative public space. Journalism should promote active citizenship by way of debate and participation. “They [the media] promote inclusiveness, pluralism, and collective purpose. According to the concept of the facilitative role, they help to develop a shared moral framework for community and society, rather than just looking after individual rights and interests” (ibid., 126). McQuail points out that the facilitative role is not always in accord with the practices of a press driven by profit and competition. Its focus is rather on minorities, marginalized groups and cultures than on mainstream reporting. Nonetheless, the facilitative role is particularly important in deliberative models of democracy.
  • The radical role “focuses on exposing abuses of power and aims to raise popular consciousness of wrongdoing, inequality, and the potential for change” (ibid., 126). It is not very clear why this role is called radical, as this function is one of classics in the list of journalism’s duties. It is radical in the sense that such journalism has the potential not only to raise awareness for any kind of abuse of power, but perhaps also to mobilize resistance or protest.
  • The collaborative role refers to the collaboration between the media and the state, for example during times of crisis or states of emergency. “Collaboration meets the needs of both parties, recognizing the fact that the media possess an essential societal resource – the public information network – though authorities often control the supply of ‘news’. While collaboration of the kind described almost inevitably impinges on the independence of the press and other media, it can usually be legitimated on grounds of immediate necessity” (ibid., 127). This role may at first sight be contradictory to the notion of freedom of the press in democratic societies. Media should certainly not collaborate with the state and other agents of power in society. But it is the irony of such role descriptions that they only rarely correspond with reality. “The collaborative role (…) is often only a more transparent and accentuated case of what goes on much of the time” (ibid. 130).

These four normative roles of journalism cover at large the democratic requirements that follow from the descriptions of the different democratic models. While the collaborative, monitorial, and radical roles fit all forms of democracy, the facilitative role with its feature of deliberation is more important in republican models of democracy.

In any case, the role of the media is essential to the sound functioning of democracies. from the perspective of the concerned civil society in whatever democracy, the media’s and journalism’s responsibility is crucial. Therefore, the conduct of the media as agents of power in democracies should be closely monitored, and media organizations should be called to account. Accountability in this context is understood as a wider concept, not only comprising the output of the media. Accountability “refers to the willingness of the media to answer for what they do by their acts of publication, including what they do to society at large, and refers as well to the feasibility of securing accountability where there is unwillingness” (Glasser 2009: 132).

In our Indicators section, we explain how we translate this understanding of the role of the media in democracy into indicators that facilitate monitoring.