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Does Media Freedom Make for Better Government?

Professor, Student, Team Up on Research

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Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, left, assistant professor of political science, researches the role of press freedom in society with the help of Mikhaila Schaefer, a junior majoring in economics.

By Sandra Seitz

“The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” --Thomas Jefferson, 1823 

Ever since the days of Jefferson, popular wisdom has it that a free press is necessary in order to hold government accountable. Social critics worry that the decline of newspapers and the growth of alternative media have eroded the “iron core” of serious news that keeps democracy functioning.

But what really is happening? Social scientists want to know. 

Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, assistant professor of political science, studies the role of media in societies that range along the spectrum of press freedom. Her newest study, “The Fabled Fourth Estate,” compares public perceptions of corruption levels in government with how free and available the media are in that country.

Mikhaila Schaefer, a junior majoring in economics, is working with Whitten-Woodring as part of the Emerging Scholars program, which provides opportunities for upper class students to engage in research.

“My research lends itself to collaborating and students can get a lot out of it,” says Whitten-Woodring. “Getting help from an advanced undergraduate student like Mikhaila was great.”

Schaefer began by reviewing the research literature on press freedom and learning the specialized analytic techniques needed to make sense of large amounts of data. She is collecting information on India, a large emerging economy where the number and influence of print newspapers are increasing, rather than declining, as in Europe and America.

“In some ways, the media in India operate like two different systems, the rural and the urban,” says Schaefer, explaining that in rural areas, where literacy levels are low, people depend on the state-controlled radio for news, while newspapers are flourishing in the urban areas.

Schaefer presented a research poster on the subject at a New England conference of the political communications section of the American Political Science Association. She also plans to present at the national conference in New Orleans.

Surprising Results, More to Learn

In theory, a free press operates to prevent corruption in government, but the researchers found a more complicated relationship.

“Our preliminary results show that increased media freedom and availability of newspapers are associated with increased perceived corruption,” says Whitten-Woodring. “But this may be somewhat deceiving. It could be an instance of people exaggerating the incidence of corruption because of increased awareness. And, since corruption is clandestine by definition, we don’t have an independent measure of it, other than perception.” 

To analyze their results in more detail, “we’ve updated the standard measure of media freedom to include a ‘threshold’ point, meaning that media are ‘free enough’ to criticize government and other power groups,” says Whitten-Woodring. “This is when media are functionally free and can report on news that rises to the level of scandal, like Watergate.”

As countries move from repression to freedom of media, the public’s perception of government corruption increases. In places with partially free media, such as India, “we find the press are more aggressive watchdogs over government corruption” than in societies with even greater press freedom, she says.