Cynthia English (Gallup) and Jason Reineke (Middle Tennessee State University).

Public and Elite Evaluators Agree on Press Freedom Assessments, Researchers Find

The general public generally agrees with Freedom House and Reporters without Borders, two nongovernmental organizations, when it comes to rating the level of press freedom in countries around the world.

That is the finding of a team of researchers from the University of Georgia and Gallup, who have looked at data gathered by the international polling organization in 2010 from a diverse set of 48 countries.

The general public was asked to indicate if the media in their country were free, and their responses were compared with the asessments of press freedom by the elite evaluators of Freedom House and Reporters without Borders, two press freedom advocacy organizations.

Freedom House, based in Washington, and Reporters without Borders, headquartered in Paris, each year release country-level evaluations of press freedom based on the conclusions of experts who review the media landscape in countries during the prior year.

The research team, Drs. Lee B. Becker and Tudor Vlad from the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia and Cynthia English, a member of the Social and Economic Analysis Division of Gallup, presented their findings at a conference in November in Chicago.

The public opinion data came from Gallup World Poll surveys conducted in 2010.

The researchers have looked at the relationship between public opinion measures and press freedom indicators in earlier research, but this was the first time they had been able to link public assessments of freedom and the elite evaluations in a large number of countries.

The new research showed that the relationship between the evaluations of the media by the public and the elite evaluators is stronger for the Freedom House measure than for the Reporters without Borders measure.

"The evidence is that the Freedom House measure is slightly more reflective of public opinion than are the RWB measures," the researchers said. "In other words, if the standard is the public opinion data, there is a slight nod in favor of the Freedom House measure."

The team said that conclusion was tentative, however, since the press freedom evaluations from Freedom House were a year old, while the Reporters without Borders measures were for 2010. In addition, only about a third of the countries in which Gallup gathers data were included in the analysis. Additional analyses with additional countries are planned by the researchers.

The team examined countries that did not show a match between public opinion and elite assessment and concluded that "The deviant cases here are informative, and they merit further analysis."

A country like Vietnam, for example, which gets low scores from evaluators but not from the general public, might rightly be considered to have a more free media system than a country, such as Russia, that scores poorly on both, according to the team.

The researchers presented their findings at the annual conference of the Midwest Association for Public Opinion Research, held at the Avenue Crowne Plaza on Nov. 19 and 20. Approximately 100 public opinion researchers from around the country attended.

Drs. Becker and Vlad have been examining the various indicators of media independence and freedom for nearly 10 years as part of their assessment of the impact of media assistance programs around the world.

The Cox Center is the international outreach arm of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.