Liberal press theory is an idea that goes back centuries. The idea of liberal press theory is that in order for the people of a society to be informed they must have the ability to speak freely and be able to their express ideas regarding what is going on in the world. However, throughout centuries there have been many different ideas regarding what exactly is deemed vital for the public to be aware of. This issue its reflected in the many different perspectives shared by those who were living through the transition of a press controlled by the government to a free press. People such as Mill, Locke, Keane, alongside a Marxist perspective, offer what their opinion of what an ideal free press truly in, or in some cases argue that a free press isn’t so free after all.
One of the most famous historians in the field of liberal press theory is John Stuart Mill. Mill believes that it is the right of the citizens to have to access of all news in order to make decisions about their daily life and to be informed about what is going on around them. He also believed that people should be allowed to discuss issues that face a society without judgment or fear of being persecuted against. “Acknowledgement of the independent and political importance of the press, and a belief that journalists acted as a voice for the public and were accountable to that public” (Mills and Barlow, 2012, 41).
This continuous dialogue in a society will lead to an advance in a society that ultimately betters everyone. As such liberal press theory holds that ‘the freedom of the press is rooted in the freedom to publish in the free market’… the press-and mass media in general-serve democracy in three ways: they play a key role in informing the electorate, they provide a means of overseeing and ‘checking’ on government- the watchdog role; they articulate public opinion” (Curran 1997c:287). This quote is saying that there are multiple duties of the press and that the job of the press is not just as simple as reporting the news. That in a sense they keep the balance of information and keep everyone in check. But who has the job of keeping an eye on the press? The answer is the people who consume the news.
Mill makes many points that seemgingly make sense. But he forgets the fact that the rich and powerful are the ones who control the press, and therefore control what is talked about and what is ignored. News stations can utilize certain tactics that can impact how a consumer thinks about the news. One example of this is agenda setting. Agenda setting is the idea that if if a news item is covered frequently and prominently, the audience will regard the issue as more important. During the 2016 election there was selective reporting of certain news events regarding whichever candidate the news station favored. This made the audience feel that certain aspects of the election were more important than others. Another example of this was in the case of the O.J Simpson murder trial. On the cover of many magazines there was a mug shot of O.J and a title that made him look like he was guilty. This was a highly covered news event and the medias bias was evident during the duration of the trial. People were constantly talking about the trial and just how important it was. There was other important news that was going on in the world but every news station always had coverage on the O.J case. Giving the public the idea that this trial was the only real piece of news worth reporting.
The impact of news reporting on the public sphere raises the question, what does it mean to have a free press and is it possible to attain one? The Marxist perspective is one that is a little less trusting of the way media companies shape how news is given to the public. This idea focuses around who was in charge of these newspapers and news organizations. The idea that the elite will be the ones who are in charge of the spread of the news and in doing so will have their own agenda placed within what they chose to report and what not to report. Some believe that the development of a free press is anything but free. People went from having the government controlling the knowledge they were given, to a select few news groups controlling what is being reported. A Marxist view would be that nothing has really changed with the development of a free press. Thinking that the elite are still in charge of the news.
John Locke talks about freedom of the press and how he views it. Locke believes that the freedom of the press should be based off of “the rights of individuals” (Mills and Barlow, 2012, 42) This opinion leaves it up to the individual to decide what he or she believes or is interested in. The public should have the right to reflect their beliefs free of action or harm by the government. This is a popular view of a liberal press because it leaves the individuals as the ones who get to make the decisions, rather than a government or news institution being the ones in power.
Keane discusses the third version of what a free press is. He states that “state censorship is unjustified because it maintains the power of despotic governments, it nullifies public opinion….it’s a counterweight to the government” (Mills and Barlow, 2012, 42) Keane believes that the government should not interfere with what information is being produced because of the fear that this could have on a society. If a state were able to control what was being said, it would not be possible for a free press to exist.
Liberal press theory and its many view points are talked about by many different experts who offer their own unique perspective on exactly what they believe it means to have a free press. But in todays world we are still trying to figure out just what the best version of having a free press would be. News stations have become overly political and have lost touch with the idea that people need to be given the news and be left to think for themselves. It appears that the news has become a divider for political parties and is no longer truly interested in giving an unbiased perspective regarding what is going on in the world to their audience. This ties back into what the Marxist perspective spoke about. The idea that the elite will only show news that benefits their own agenda. In todays world, it really has become difficult for a citizen to obtain information that is not showing favoritism towards one side or another. The news should not be a place where an individual is not told what to think, but rather be a place for thought and reflection about what is going on in the world.
That being said, we have come a long way in terms of the freedoms that are given to the public. While we are not quite there is achieving a truly free press. There is clear progress being made. Citizens are more free now to express ideas and new thoughts than ever before. Moving forward as a society we just need to keep in mind that the news is a two-way street. Viewers should not feel as if they are being told what to think but instead should be given the facts and left to decide what their opinion is to themselves.
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Mass Media | Agenda Setting Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Mass Media/Agenda-Setting_Theory/
Written by Brian Graham, 2018