What are the The Four Theories of the Press?


In 1956 three professors of communication-Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm-brought out their Four Theories of the Press which went a long way in establishing a typology in the minds of journalism educators and students.

The little volume (in paperback since 1963) has become standard reading in journalism departments and schools and has done much to legitimize the fourth theory-social responsibility. Almost every article and book dealing with philosophical bases for journalism has referred to this book, commented on it or quoted from it. Its impact has unquestionably been great in spite of what some believe are significant weaknesses.

Siebert, Peterson and Schramm discuss journalism philosophy presenting four theories (concepts might have been a more realistic term): 1. the authoritarian theory, 2. the libertarian theory, 3. the communist theory and 4 the social responsibility theory. Very briefly, here are the main characterstics of each of these theories.



The state, as the highest expression of institu­tionalized structure, supersedes the individual and makes it possible for the individual to acquire and develop a stable and harmonious life Mass communication, then, supports the state and the govern­ment in power so that total society may advance and the state may be viable and attain its objectives.

The State (the elite that runs the state) directs the citizenry, which is not considered competent and interested enough to make critical political decisions. One man or an elite group is placed in a leadership role. As the group or person controls society generally it (or he or she) also controls the mass media since they are recognized as vital instruments of social control.

The mass media, under authoritarianism, are educators and propagandists by which the power elite exercise social control. Generally the media are privately owned, although the leader or his elite group may own units in the total communication system. A basic: assumption a person engaged in journalism is so engaged as a special privilege granted by the national leadership. He, therefore, owes an obligation to the leadership.


This press concept has formed and now forms, the basis for many media systems of the world. The mass media, under authoritarianism, have only as much freedom as the national leadership at any particular time is willing to permit.


The libertarian press concept is generally traced back to England and the American colonies of the seventeenth century. Giving rise to the libertarian press theory was the philosophy that looked upon man as a rational animal with inherent natural rights. One of these rights was the right to pursue truth, and potential inter­feres (kings, governors et al) would (or should) be restrained.

Exponents of this press movement during the seventeenth century, and the 200 years which followed, included Milton, Locke, Erskine, Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill. Individual liberties were stressed by these philosophers, along with a basic trust in the people to take intelligent decisions (generally) if a climate of free expression existed.


In theory, a libertarian press functions to present the truth, however splintered it may be in a pluralism of voices. It is impossi­ble to do this if it is controlled by some authority outside itself. Through the years many new ideas were grafted on to early press libetarianism: One of these, for example, was the general accept­ance of a kind of obligation to keep the public abreast of govern­mental activities, or being a kind of fourth branch of government supplementing the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

This was actually a rather recent concept, having been grafted on to the original libertarian theory. There flows a basic faith, shown by libertarian advocates that a free press- working in a laissez faire, unfettered situation-will naturally result in a pluralism of information and viewpoints necessary in a democratic society.


The communist theory of the press arose, along with the theory of communism itself, in the first quarter of the present century. Karl Marx was its father, drawing heavily on the ideas of his fellow German, George W. F. Hegel. The mass media in a communist society, said Marx, were to function basically to perpetuate and expand the socialist system. Transmission of social policy, not searching for the truth, was to be the main rationale for existence of a communist media system.


Mass media, under this theory, are instruments of government and integral parts of the State. They are owned and operated by the State and directed by the Communist Party or its agencies. Criticism is permitted in the media (i. e. criticism of failure to achieve goals), but criticism of basic ideology is forbidden. Communist theory, like that of authoritarianism, is based on the premise that the masses are too fickle and too ignorant and unconcerned with government to be entrusted with governmental responsibilities.

Thus, the media have no real concern with giving them much information about govern­mental activities or of its leaders. Mass media are to do what is best for the state and party; and what is best determined by the elite leadership of State and Party. Whatever the media do to contribute to communism and the Socialist State is moral; whatever is done to harm or hinder the growth of communism is immoral.

Social Responsibility:

This concept, a product of mid-twentieth century America, is said by its proponents to have its roots in liberta­rian theory. But it goes beyond the libertarian theory, in that it places more emphasis on the press’s responsibility to society than on the press’s freedom. It is seen as a higher level, theoretically, than libertarianism-a kind of moral and intellectual evolutionary trip from discredited old, libertarianism to a new or perfected libertarianism where things are forced to work as they really should have worked under libertarian theory.


The explainers and de­fenders of this theory maintain that they are libertarians, but socially responsible libertarians, contrasted presumably with other liber­tarians who (if their views and actions do not agree with those of the new libertarians) are not socially responsible.

This fourth theory of the press has been drawn largely from a report published in 1947 by the Hutchins Commission. Emerging from the Commission’s publications and solidified in the literature of journalism by Four Theories of the Press, this new theory maintains that the importance of the press in modern society makes it absolutely necessary that an obligation of social responsibility be imposed on the media of mass communication.

Merril’s Philosophy:

John C. Merrill emphasises the freedom of the Press in the following words:

“Freedom is essential to authentic journalism, to creative press system and to expanding vigorous and self-assured journalists. Journalistic autonomy is the imperative (the only valid responsibility) for those who want to participate in journalism on a really human level, and when the philosophy and psychology of adjustment begin to make inroads in nations today, the concept of press freedom is changed to journalistic social-determinism or press responsibility.”

His definition of the freedom of the Press is linked to social determinism or press responsibility. He says there are two main ways to consider freedom of the press: (1) As media autonomy with journa­listic self-determinism, and (2) As media adjustment to social or poli­tical desires. In other words, one can look at press freedom as media-determinism of the content of mass communications or as public (a kind of people’s lobby or majority desire) determinism of media content.

The determination of socially responsible journalism is of course, left strictly to the media people themselves. This is exactly what we already have in a libertarian, laissez-faire, self-deterministic .media system in western nations today.

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