The Role of the Media in Democratization


Patrick J. McConnell and Lee B. Becker


A diverse and growing body of research and writing on the role of media in democratic development exists in the literatures of political science, mass communication, economics and sociology, as well as other fields. Unfortunately, little has been done to integrate this work. As a result, there is at present no consensus on the role the media play in the democratic process. This paper provides an integration of that literature.

This review indicates that the process of democratization does not always move in a single direction. Countries move toward democracy in starts and stops, with regression at least somewhat common. The literature indicates that there are four distinct phases that a country or territory goes through on the path to becoming a stable democracy. These four stages of societal development can be labeled pretransition, transition, consolidation and stable (or mature). The pretransition stage focuses on societal conditions under the old regime, while the transition stage is that historical moment when the previous regime no longer holds political power. A state becomes consolidated when the ideals of democracy are accepted and adhered to, and then is considered stable when democracy functions over a period of time.

This approach suggests that media tend to be most supportive of democracy in the early, often euphoric, period after the previous regime has fallen, when journalists as well as other citizens are enjoying newfound freedoms. As the transition process moves toward consolidation, the media as well as the public can become more cynical, particularly in the face of continued political wrangling and the financial pressures of a market economy.

The media in a stable democracy are considered the principal institutions from which members of the public can better understand their society. Ideally, the media contribute to the public sphere by providing citizens with information about their world, by fostering debate about various issues and by encouraging informed decisions about available courses of action. The media are also a site of contestation in which diverse positions are advanced, significant opinions are heard, interests and inner-workings are exposed, and input is received. These all contribute to public debate. The media are also expected to act as “watchdogs” on government and industry.

This paper summarizes and integrates the existing literature. It identifies consistencies and inconsistencies in the literatures and offers possible explanations of those inconsistencies. The outcome is a theoretical perspective from which hypotheses can be derived. These hypotheses can be used to reexamine historical cases as well as make predictions about the future.

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