Howard College Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, location for the 2012 IAMCR conference.

Researchers Say Public Can Assess Media Freedom

The public is able to provide quite meaningful assessments of the level of media freedom in the country of residence, researchers from the University of Georgia and the Gallup organization reported at a conference of communication scholars in Durban, South Africa, in July.

Public opinion measures of media freedom are mostly stable year-to-year, the researchers reported, but countries where the general population reported changes in levels of media freedom are for the most part the same ones that outside evaluators identified as countries with change.

When the public and the external evaluators disagree, the researchers concluded, it isn’t clear whether the public or the evaluators misinterpreted what was happening in the country.

Dr. Lee B. Becker, Cynthia English and Dr. Tudor Vlad drew on data from the Gallup World Poll in reaching their conclusions about the public’s ability to assess media freedom.

They presented their findings to the Journalism Research and Education Section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research at its annual conference, held July 15-19, 2012, in Durban.

They compared the results of the public opinion polls with measures of media freedom produced by Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization based in the United States, and by Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris.

In general, the public and the nongovernmental organizations reached the same conclusions about which countries in the world had free media and which did not.

Dr. Becker is director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, a unit of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Dr. Vlad is associate director of the Cox Center.

English is a researcher with Gallup with responsibility for the Gallup World Poll. The Gallup World Poll regularly surveys adult residents in more than 160 countries and areas, representing more than 98 percent of the world’s adult population.

In most cases, randomly selected, nationally representative samples of the entire civilian, non-institutionalized, age 15 and older population of each country are used. Gallup typically surveys 1,000 individuals in each country, with at least 2,000 surveys being conducted in large countries like China, India and Russia.

The University of Georgia and Gallup team has collaborated on research on public perceptions of the media and on the relationship of this opinion with other indicators of media freedom for about five years.

The IAMCR conference took place at the Howard College Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. About 800 researchers and media specialists from about 80 countries attended.