Dr. Lee B. Becker at conference. Photo by: Lenny Pridatko

Media Freedom Indicators Politically and Scientifically Useful, Researcher Said

Prior to launching a research program focused on press freedom indicators about 10 years ago, Dr. Lee B. Becker told an audience at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in February, he was quite skeptical about the value of the indicators.

Dr. Becker said he thought of the indicators as politically charged and "not as a product of sound science."

"My view has changed," Dr. Becker told the 25 students, scholars and members of the public present at the Harriman Institute program. "I see now these indicators as both politically valuable and scientifically useful."

Dr. Becker, director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at the University of Georgia, was one of three panelists on the Feb. 16 program at the Harriman Institute at the International Affairs Building on the Columbus campus in New York.

Dr. Karin Karlekar, senior researcher and managing editor of the Freedom House Freedom of the Press Index, and Anne Nelson, adjunct associate professor in the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, were the other panelists. Nelson formerly served as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Freedom House and Committee to Protect Journalists are nongovernmental organizations that gather data on media organizations and journalism around the world. The Freedom House has been presenting its annual ratings of press freedom since 1980.

Dr. Becker reviewed the program of research he and Dr. Tudor Vlad, associate director of the Cox Center, have conducted that looks at the consistency and utility of various indicators created by organizations such as Freedom House and CPJ.

He said that research began when he and Dr. Vlad decided to assess whether the existing press freedom indicators could be used to assess the impact of media assistance projects around the world.

They first looked at the consistency of the evaluations over time, looked at the internal components of those measures, and looked at the comparability across the different evaluators.

They concluded the measures were consistent.

They next began looking at the relationships of the indicators produced by the elite evaluators to what the general population said about the media in their countries in public opinion polls.

Again, the team found consistency.

In the end, Dr. Becker told the audience at Columbia, he and Dr. Vlad have concluded that a preferred measure of media systems would include both the assessments of the elite evaluators of Freedom House and their counterparts and the assessments of the public, as reflected in public opinion polls.

Dr. Kerlekar, in her presentation, focused on how the Freedom House evaluations are used by both those who are interested in improving the media around the world and by governments, some of which are interested in learning what they need to do to score better next time around.

Nelson focused on her experiences at Committee to Protect Journalists, indicating that it often is very difficult to count what would appear to be simple things, such as the number of journalists killed in a country during a given year.

CPJ goes to great efforts, she said, to separate the journalist killed in a traffic accident rushing to cover a story from the journalist killed because of a story written or about to be written.

The traffic accident is not an indicate of attacks on the media, she said, while the latter deaths are.

The program on The Politics of International Media Rankings was part of ongoing offerings by the Harriman Institute to reach out to the broader academic and professional communities of New York as well as to the general public.

The Harriman Institute at Columbia University is the oldest academic institution in the United States devoted to the study of the countries of the former Soviet Union, East and Central Europe and the Balkans.

It was founded in 1946, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, and in 1982 became the W. Averell Harriman Institute in recognition of the former New York governor.

The Cox Center is a unit of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.