Preconditions of Journalistic Quality in an Open Society

Preconditions of Journalistic Quality in an Open Society


Primarily three conditions determine quality and performance of journalism in a free, open society. First, the resources, in a broad meaning, which open up or restrain possibilities of action to journalists; secondly, the legal and political order which guarantees freedom and protection of journalism; and thirdly, the professional standards being taken for granted by journalists and conducting their routine activities as well as their behavior in borderline situations. I will show how these three conditions are related to journalistic quality.

Quality of Journalism

Let me first explain what I mean by 'quality of journalism'. The term 'quality' (or 'performance', as Anglo-Saxon authors prefer to say) implies an assessment according to definite criteria or standards. But how could one assess mass media in general and journalism in particular? Are there criteria for distinguishing good journalism from poor journalism? Experienced journalists would answer: no question. They usually are able to recognize good journalism at first sight. The question then arises whether it is possible to make explicit the intuitive insight based on broad experience.

Communication research has in fact dealt extensively with these questions during the last decade (see e.g. Hillve, Majanen and Rosengren, 1997; Hagen, 1995; Ishikawa, 1996; McQuail, 1992; Schulz, 1996). Several inquiries into the criteria for journalistic quality go even as far as developing methods for measuring quality empirically and quantitatively. There are different approaches in this field. Some studies indeed start from interviewing people in the profession and try to uncover their insights based on experience (e.g. Albers, 1992; Weber and Rager, 1994). Other studies survey audiences and ask them to assess media quality (e.g. Tebert, 2000). A third approach proceeds from media laws and extract the standards for a norm-compliant media performance and a journalism of high quality (Schatz and Schulz, 1992). Another approach derives these standards through theoretical deduction from societal norms and values (McQuail, 1992).

As McQuail has convincingly demonstrated in his seminal book on 'Media Performance' (1992) the criteria for journalistic quality are closely connected with basic values of a free, democratic society, values like freedom, equality, social security and order. These values originate from the Age of Enlightment and the great democratic revolutions of the 18. and 19. century. The constitutions and the law systems of modern democratic societies, including the communication and media laws, are based on these values.

Let me just briefly sketch the connections of quality criteria with basic democratic values and thereby concentrating on independence, diversity and objectivity as the most essential quality criteria of journalism.

Independence, diversity and objectivity are quite abstract norms, and they are also, to a certain degree, interconnected with each other. Independence has two meanings, namely independence from and independence for (McQuail, 1992: 110). The former includes not only independence from the state, but also from pressure groups, advertisers and from the owners of mass media, particularly if these are powerful chains or trusts. The latter means, above all, independence for advocacy and for taking a watchdog role.

Diversity comprises of two aspects which are partly interdependent, diversity of content and diversity of access. Diversity (or plurality) of content relates to several different dimensions, like opinions, topics, issues, persons and groups, geographic regions. The demand for diversity of access means that all relevant social groups and political actors must have access to mass media. This is also referred to as the forum function of mass media. Two different principles are considered for applying the access postulate, equal (or open) access and proportional (or reflective) access. Equal access means that each group receives equal attention in the media in terms of space or time. Proportional access means that the attention is allocated according to the importance or size of different groups in reality. These two principles play a special role in election campaigns when the attention given to different political parties in the news and in election broadcasts is a critical matter.

Objectivity is perhaps the most problematic quality criterion, partly because it stimulates associations with a highly controversial philosophical concept. There are ways however of decomposing the objectivity concept into more concrete terms which are linked to rules of everyday practice in journalism, as Westerstahl (1983) has demonstrated. A first-level subdivision of objectivity makes a distinction between factuality and impartiality. While the former can be further differentiated into the aspects of truth and relevance, the latter comprises the aspects of balance (or non-partisanship) and of neutral presentation.

We may now construct a hierarchical framework, which borrows from McQuails (1992) excellent analysis, showing the logical interrelations of these concepts.

An important function of this framework is that it can direct and stimulate the development of operational definitions of quality criteria. These can then be used for assessing the performance of mass media through empirical research. Studies of this kind look at the quality e.g. of journalistic reporting, of TV programme output, and of other media genres.

If time permits I will give an example of my own ongoing research which is directed at the qualitiy of the quality press in different countries, more specifically at the performance of leading newspapers in their international reporting.

I will now turn to the preconditions of media performance. What are the requirements of a high quality journalism?


One basic requirement can be labeled, quite generally, sufficient resources. It is obvious that journalistic quality depends on material resources such as the available budgets of an editorial office or its technical equipment. The more money is at the disposal of a newspaper or a radio station, the more reporters can be employed and the more news agencies can be subscribed to. This will contribute to a more diverse and a more accurate reporting. A modern inhouse communication and computing system with gateways to the internet and to external data bases will have a similar effect.

By resources I also mean what economists term 'human capital', i.e. the availability of persons who are talented and well trained for journalism. This is in turn dependent on the recruitment mechanisms for the journalistic profession and on a developed educational infrastructure for journalists.

For good reasons, the recruitment of journalists is largely unregulated in democratic societies. The reasons are directly connected with the criteria of journalistic quality. In order to safeguard media diversity it is a necessary to ensure open access to the journalistic profession. A self-selection of journalists serves best to reach this goal. Recruitment by self-selection is functional for quality in journalism if the profession attracts not not only individuals from the most different social groups and strata, but also highly qualified people. Empirical studies into the job motivation of journalists show that it is less the material incentives which makes the profession attractive, but rather the high degree of autonomy which journalists usually have in a free society. In addition, opportunities for self-realization and for excerting social influence make the profession attractive. One can expect therefore that resources supporting these opportunities are favorable for a quality journalism.

Good journalism, of course, presupposes a specific talent and motivation. But one can expect even better journalism, if young motivated talents become well educated. This view gained ground already at the beginning of this century in the United States, in Western Europe however just lately. As a consequence, in many European countries journalism education has been improved or newly established at universities and journalism schools in recent years. It is asumed, that well-trained are better equipped to apply quality criteria like objectivity, truth, fairness and neutrality, and, above all, to adhere to these norms in their practical work.

Legal and Political Order

Quality and performance of journalism are contigent on the legal and political order of a country. But a democratic constitution of a country does not automatically produce high quality journalism. What matters is how the democratic principles are transformed into the system of laws and into the practice of jurisdiction. What also matters is how far they determine the political institutions and the behavior of the political protagonists.

A system of laws which serves an independent and objective journalism must, firstly, guarantee the essentials of individual communication freedom, i.e. the freedom of access to information, the freedom of expression and of distribution of opinion. Secondly, specific privileges and protection laws are necessary for journalists, such as a special right of information vis-à-vis state authorities, a right to refuse to give evidence in trials (in order to protect informants), as well as a protection of editorial offices against confiscation by public prosecutors.

Thirdly, it is an essential prerequisite for journalistic quality to protect the media against state control as well as against powerful pressure groups or business firms. An absolute ban of state censorship is indispensible. Moreover, media must neither be owned by the state, nor by political parties or by banks and business groups (with the exception of media for the internal information of these organizations, for their employees or members). And these organizations must not have influence through property shares or governing bodies on the contents or the personnel policy of mass media. Otherwise the impartiality and diversity of the media and particularly the media's watchdog function, i.e. the criticism and control of political and economic power, will suffer.

Finally, it is also necessary to protect journalism against undesirable developments within the media system itself, particularly against concentration processes. Concentration limits the competition of the media among each other and thus reduces media diversity as well as journalistic competition and mutual journalistic control. Both, a limitation of journalistic competition and mutual control, are likely to impair media quality.

Communication laws and anti-trust laws must therefore prevent cartels, monopolies and oligopolies in media markets and must also counteract vertical and diagonal concentration processes, i.e. an accumulation of media power through cross-ownerships.

Professional Standards

Journalistic quality depends on the external conditions under which journalists work, primarily on the available resources as well as on the legal and political order the media system is subject to. I have looked at these two aspects so far.

The third aspect to which I will turn now concerns the level of professional dedication, or more precisely: the standards and values which are taken for granted by journalists and which direct their routine behavior. By this I mean professional rules like the following (I quote from the Producers' Guidelines of the British BBC):

  • All the relevant facts should be weighed to get at the truth of what is reported or described.
  • If an issue is controversial, relevant opinions as well as facts must be considered.
  • When a mistake does occur it is important to admit it clearly and frankly.
  • The privacy of individuals has to be respected and intrusions have to be justified by serving a higher public good.

The siginifcance of such rules for the quality of journalism becomes quite clear when we look at the boderlands of journalism where the media profit from violations of good taste and social norms: at tabloids, at the so-called yellow press, at commercial radio and television. To prevent misunderstandings: The existence of this type of media is unavoidable in an open and free society. We also have to live with the fact that certain media exploit their liberties and privileges for commercial purposes. What matters however is, whether the norm violations are perceived as deviant behavior and are publicly critized, if not even punished legally.

This in turn presupposes appropriate legal regulations, particularly an effective right of privacy, and in addition institutions for media self-regulation, e.g. an ombudsman, a press council, professional codes of ethic and professional organizations taking care that the ethical standards are met. Moreover, it is important that the majority of journalists adheres to the professional norms, and sanctions violations informally, e.g. by a loss of reputation of those who violate the norms.

What matters also is that the media which try to profit from norm violations remain only a marginal phenomenon. The majority must be commited to a journalism of social responsibility and good quality. And beyond this there should exist some leading media which set the standards for the media system: some quality newspapers, an intellectual weekly press, as well as radio and TV stations which comply with standards of social responsibility, public service and accountability (see Bertelsmann Foundation, 1995).


Let me summarize. Journalistic quality depends primarily on three conditions, on the availability of adequate resources, on a legal and political order which protects and garantees the independence of mass media, and the adherence of journalists to professional standards. The most essential criteria for journalistic quality are diversity and objectivity. They are closely connected to the basic values of an open, democratic society, particularly to freedom and equality. The achievement of these values, i.e. the degrees of freedom and equality a society has to offer, is dependent on the quality of its journalism.

In this context the assessment of how journalism and mass media rank in quality appears to be a highly relevant field of communication research. Let me thus add a final remark on the practicalities of media performance research. As mentioned, there are ways of precisely defining the quality criteria for journalism and transforming them into operational definitions so that they can be applied in empirical studies. In my view it would be a siginificant and fruiful task to organize studies into a comparative analysis of journalistic quality in different countries. Possible results of such studies could be comparative rankings of the quality of single media in various countries as well as a ranking of the quality of whole media systems. Beyond the descriptive value of such results they would provide a starting point for diagnosing the reasons for the poor showing of certain media and certain countries with respect to journalistic quality.


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Winfried Schulz Chair in Mass Communication and Political Science, Institute for Social Science, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany

E-Mail: Winfried.Schulz [at]
Phone: +49-911-5302-674
Fax: + 49-911-5302-659

Paper for Presentation at the International Conference
"News Media and Politics - Independent Journalism",

Budapest, 6-7 October 2000

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