Silvio Waisbord

(George Washington University)

Introduction

Doubtlessly, we are living through unprecedented transformations in political communication structures, dynamics and practices. Among others, the proliferation of media choices, changing forms of news and political engagement, patterns of disinformation, mediated populism, mediatization, media hybridization, digital activism, and the centrality of social media in news use are relatively recent and distinctive features of mediated politics globally. They have refashioned virtually every aspect of political communication: campaigning, participation, public expression, news exposure and engagement, the agenda-setting power of the press, the process of news framing.

Given the scale of the changes, scholars have persuasively suggested that we need to seriously reconsider major arguments and concepts that have long defined theoretical parameters and research agendas in the field (Bennett & Pfetsch 2018; Mazzoleni 2017). A reconsideration is needed because virtually everything we knew about political communication has changed.

In my mind, “media system” is one concept that needs to be revisited. While it remains useful, it is important to understand for what. “Media system” (as well as its close relative “press system”) has been both a valuable analytical tool and area of research in the study of political communication. The concept of “media system” assumes the existence of distinctive structures and dynamics bounded by national political factors (Hallin 2016). As “ideal type”, media system has heuristic and comparative value. It captures essential aspects of national media environments in distinctive categories and facilitates cross-national comparisons. The underlying assumption is that the combination of specific aspects of media industries (such as ownership, funding, journalistic practices, legal frameworks) and the interaction with political structures and actors yield distinctive national and (sub)regional configurations.

The study of media systems has been primarily concerned with identifying structural features of the media – policies, ownership, funding models, journalistic cultures and practices and their interrelation with organized politics, namely the state and political parties. The original impetus was primarily normative, as illustrated by the classic Four Theories of the Press, which was essentially an effort to present the US/Western model as superior over communist and other alternative systems. In recent decades, however, the primary purpose has been analytical, namely, identifying and comparing central aspects of national media, assessing the uneven impact of globalization, and understanding the challenges for media pluralism. The focus on “media systems” reflected the shared assumption in media/communication studies and comparative political science that nation(s)-states are containers of distinctive political and communication systems (Esser and Vliegenhart 2017) and analytical units.

Globally, media systems have changed due to policy and technological transformations in the post-Cold War period. The spread of commercialization and privatization (often understood under the rubric of “Americanization” and “globalization”) coupled with the emergence of democratic regimes in the 1980s and 1990s ushered in monumental changes in the media. These developments sparked the interest in whether media systems featured unique aspects or, instead, had become more homogeneous. Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) landmark book was the most ambitious and successful attempt to examine and classify media systems in North America and Western Europe. They argued that, despite globalization/Americanization, significant differences persisted among three types of media systems: liberal, democratic corporatist, polarized pluralist. Subsequent works discussed the merits of this typology and refined the now-classic typology (Hallin and Mancini 2017).

In this article, I am interested in revisiting the analytical value of media systems for examining cross-national political communication processes. I’m less interested in questions about heterogeneity/homogeneity than on whether systems analysis helps to understand cross-national issues and phenomena. My interest is not to discuss whether media systems are converging around a similar set of principles, structures, and practices, the question that sparked Hallin and Mancini’s study. Nor do I intend to revisit the discussion over the classification and the peculiarities of systems in the digital age (Mancini 2019; Mattoni & Ceccobelli 2018) or to expand on the critique of methodological imbalance in comparative political communication (Powers and Vera-Zambrano 2018).

Like other scholars (Schroeder 2018), I have been lately struck by the notable similarities of recent political communication phenomena across countries. Just to mention a few examples. Social media platforms have been manipulated for disinformation in recent elections in Brazil, the United Kingdom and the Philippines. Tabloids have polluted the well of public information with xenophobic content throughout Europe. Commercial media and digital platforms have been used as vehicles for hate politics across the globe. Mediated populism has been a scourge in different media systems such as Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, the United States, and Venezuela. Mediatization and the blending of traditional and digital media has completely upended politics, regardless of historical particularities. Polarized mediated politics are not unique to “polarized pluralist” media systems in Southern Europe and Latin America, as they are now found in the United States and the United Kingdom, too (Nechustai 2018). Videos, memes, gifs and other forms of digital content are common formats for political expression by individual citizens and organized groups. Hate speech is widely available in the same global platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, 4chan among others. Once journalism has been knocked off its dominant gatekeeping position, all kinds of content has become accessible and prominent. The collapse of common norms to determine facticity and veracity have unsettled conventional forms of truth-telling and news. Politicians are able to reach out publics frequently and on their own terms, without having to cultivate traditional forms of mediation such as press conferences or bow to journalistic expectations and norms. Reporters, politicians, and human rights activists have been the target of harassment. Journalistic cultures are increasingly hybrid around the world.

What these processes have in common is that they are cross-national. They are found in countries with historically strong and weak public media, strong and weak traditions of “professional” journalism, strong and weak political/media parallelism. Given remarkably similar developments, it is worth interrogating why similar cross-national processes have taken place in different “media systems”. 

My interest is to interrogate the validity of the concept of “media system” given the disjointed, turbulent reality of “the media” in the digital era and critical developments in contemporary political communication. While I remain convinced that “media system” remains analytically valuable to define and compare media structures, institutions and practices across countries (Esser & Pfetsch 2017), I believe it is necessary to reassess its analytical validity for the study of cross-national developments.


Media systems in transition

Is “media system”, a concept coined during the heyday of the mass media, relevant at a time of digital, networked, chaotic, abundant public communication? To answer this question, it is necessary first to examine the currency of the two conceptual components of “media systems”. Both “media” and “systems” are in transition, if not in question.

“Media” does not have univocal meaning as it once presumably did. Internet has made more complex the notion of “medium”, understood as a particular set of technological capabilities that connect and provide conduits for symbolic content and exchanges. Media now include networks, platforms, and mobile applications. They do not only mediate the production, distribution and consumption of symbolic content, but more fundamentally, they produce data (Turow and Couldry 2018).

Likewise, “the media” as a set of political, commercial, and socio-cultural institutions and platforms/channels are more diverse than in the past, too. To state the obvious, digital platforms, especially Google and social media corporations, now play dominant roles in public communication as they capture a disproportionate amount of (global) public attention and advertising. Media institutions and industries refers to a range of corporations and platforms. Should global social media companies be considered integral parts of national media system? Considering the different position and popularity of various companies in different countries, which ones should be included as constitutive components of national media systems? If media systems are “hybrid”, is their hybridity comparable in terms of the weight of various companies? Furthermore, a whole slew of different content creators now exists, as the disinformation panic about bots, rogue governments, and ghost media demonstrates.  

Also, “system” is problematic for describing national media structures and dynamics. The current chaos does not convey media systems with clear boundaries and dynamics. It is difficult to cluster the flurry of global flows, media hybridity, freewheeling blend of facts and fiction, and heterogeneous journalistic cultures in discrete orders with well-defined, permanent patterns. “System” is too rigid to capture the evolving interconnections among specific aspects of media industries, institutions and practices. Also, it carries structural-functionalist assumptions about enclosed, self-reproducing units (Hardy 2012) that do not stress essential aspects of contemporary media orders, namely, open-ended dynamics and network configurations. Not surprisingly, some scholars prefer geographical metaphors to refer to the media, such as “information/communication/news” ecology (Strate 2016), environment, and (land)scape, as well as the concept of “public communication” (Rantanen 2019). Such choice is more than a random semantic preference. It suggests perhaps a reluctance to use “system” to refer to the contemporary macro media structures.

Second, the study of “media systems” has been news-centric. Developed at a time when industrial journalism was the primary gatekeeper of mass information, “media system” (and “press system”) prioritized news content and organizations as central aspects of national media. Press legislation, the professional values of journalism, and the relationship between news organizations and political power were essential components of media/press systems. Cultural industries (television, film, music, books) were not generally included because they were not purveyors of news and public affairs content.

Today, news, journalism and the press are just one aspect of public communication. Everything related to news content, industries, workers, and values, occupies a more limited position in public communication even if, arguably, they are relevant. A focus on news institutions and producers is incomplete given the astounding diversity of media content and forces. News produced by journalistic organizations and legacy media companies is a speck of Internet traffic. Publics generate far more content than news organizations through various platforms. From memes to microvideos, a wide array of formats and genres fill public communication. These forms of expression are not mere add-ons. Rather, they are regularly utilized for multiple purposes: citizenship and control, information and trickery, edification and entertainment. Therefore, it is limited to approach media systems by considering only news content.

Third, “media system” analysis has an institutional bias. It placed media institutions at the center of the analysis. The reason was simple: they had occupied a central, dominant position in mediated communication. Similarities and differences among national media systems are grounded in distinctive institutional characteristics – whether particular aspects of media industries, market and occupations (ownership, funding, culture, policies, number of actors) as well as the particular interrelation among them as well as with traditional political actors (the State, political partiers). Taking an institutional perspective, scholars have justifiably argued that US, Nordic, Eastern European and South American media systems are different. Fundamental institutional configurations are different, in the same way that political scientists have long established differences among political systems and party systems.  

Unsurprisingly, an institutional focus minimizes or excludes non-institutional forms of mediated expression. This is problematic given that contemporary media environments feature a diversity on non-institutional forms of public expression. From individual citizens to collective movements, a range of social actors produce content unshackled by the conventions of industrial, institutional journalism and the dominant logics of other media institutions. They create, share, post, comment on staggering amounts of content. Publics as well as their content are not bounded by traditional “media logics” in terms of quality, newsworthiness, source or any considerations that have been at the core of the work of media professionals – journalists, documentarians, script writers, television producers. Nor is their relationship with media and political institutions straightforward. It is much harder to describe the relationship of non-institutional public communication in terms of parallelism (or lack of) with the state and political parties (or social movements, corporations, foundations, churches, and other actors).

In summary, recent developments make it necessary to reassess the concept of “media system”. What is the scope of “media”? What does it include and exclude? Is “systems” a suitable analytical prism to make sense of jumbled, multilayered media environments? Do media systems resemble open, closed or autopoietic systems? Does “media system” take account of non-traditional, non-industrial news content and producers as well as non-institutional forms of public expression? What separates “national” media systems when so much of everyday public communication is channeled through the same global platforms? Can we produce firm characterizations of “media systems” when they comprise changing pieces – the news industry is rapidly shrinking, partisan/advocacy news are popular, “professional journalism” is discredited among sectors of the population, and Facebook and Google have a dominant presence in digital communication? Are concepts such as “media environment/ecology” and “public communication” rigorous and useful alternatives for classifying national media orders and conducting cross-national comparative research? 


Shifting the comparative perspective

Another issue to consider is the validity of “media systems” to make sense of a bevy of cross-national phenomena – disinformation, mediated populism, digital activism. If national and regional “media systems” remain distinctive (Guerrero & Marquez-Ramirez 2014; Mutsvairo & Karam 2018), what difference do they make, analytically and empirically, for the study of those phenomena? If aspects of media systems remain important, say the relation between media and political power or professional journalistic norms and practices, why are comparable phenomena found in various countries and regions? What difference does the quality of content supply among media systems make (Beattie 2019) given similar troubling developments for media pluralism and democracy? Do they yield better conditions for confronting the challenges of populism, xenophobia, post-truth, and hate? 

Taking a holistic approach may not be the best analytical path to study developments that are not limited to one country or corner of the world. Because “media system” is an analytical construct that condenses multiple, interacting variables, it is not sufficiently refined to explain the particularities of similar phenomena, such as mediated activism, mediatization, disinformation, polarization, post-truth politics, conspiracy theories, alt-right news, filter bubbles and echo chambers, populism, media hybridization. It is designed to do something different, namely, to understand and compare central features of national/(sub)regional media and political units.

In line with recent arguments (Powers and Vera-Zambrano 2018; Rojas & Valenzuela 2019), I believe that addressing specific contextual factors is a productive path for cross-national comparative research.

Consider the following propositions advanced by recent studies. Right-wing legacy news organizations that continuously peddle disinformation and hate contribute to the resurgence of populism in different media environments (Boczkowski and Papacharissi 2018). The unmatched news-making power of prominent politicians, untethered to traditional elite norms of truth-telling, fact-fudging, and civility, helps to explain the spread and the legitimation of blatant lies in public communication. Journalists in countries with low political parallelism are less likely to use Twitter for commentary (Barberá, Vaccari, & Valeriani 2017). Cross-national, collaborative investigative reporting yields different results across countries given the different configuration of political systems and the health of accountability mechanisms (Graves 2019; Waisbord 2000). News coverage of environmental issues, from climate change to renewal energy, tends to follow domestic and economic frames, and has been centered more on elites than civil society across different media systems (Djerf-Pierre, Cokley & Kuchel 2015). The deployment of identical disinformation campaigns on social media platforms during recent election campaigns around the world imperils the quality and the transparency of election campaigns and systems in all democracies. Populist appeals are particularly effective in countries where large sectors of the white population are anxious about migration and multiculturalism. Countries with a stronger tradition of public broadcasting and better-resourced journalism have valuable tools to confront false information and polarization (Goidel et al 2017).

These propositions do not only address the same developments across media systems/countries – the role of legacy media in populism, the causes of massive deception in public discourse, the political impact of investigative journalism and disinformation campaigns, and news frames. They also demonstrate that “context matters” by emphasizing the significance of aspects of media systems. 

An approach focused on specific variables rather than systems as a whole has important implications for comparative research. Methodologically, it directs attention to asking about the explanatory weight of certain variables in similar political communication processes across national media systems. Analytically, it tries to find a parsimonious explanation for specific cross-national phenomena with an eye on theory building informed by evidence from multiple countries. It is not primarily interested in enlarging the size of national cases to produce or to refine the taxonomy of global media systems. Rather, it strategically selects national cases for controlling for specific variables (e.g. professional journalism, public media, commercial broadcasting) to understand certain phenomena.

An additional strength is that this approach toƒ comparative studies avoids the clustering of comparative political communication studies in “area studies” – the United States, Europe (and sub-regions), Asia (and sub-regions), Africa, South America and so on (Waisbord 2015). Separating knowledge by political-geographic divisions is problematic, even when important similarities within specific regions are found. Such divisions assume that nation(s)-states contain unique media and political systems, and ignores that common developments take place in countries placed in different media systems.

Instead, the propositions listed above are grounded in the study of cross-cutting phenomena in different national media systems: mediated populism in Brazil, the Philippines and the United States, disinformation in Mexico and the United Kingdom, conspiracy theories in Western and Eastern Europe. This line of inquiry shows that the selection of national cases should be driven by the curiosity in exploring whether national differences explain (or not) similar processes. Theoretical questions, body of evidence, and arguments direct the selection of cases.

By doing so, comparative research foregrounds theoretical questions and empirical problems that are not unique to one country or region. This provides a wealth of evidence and arguments that help to address the longstanding limitations of a field of inquiry with theoretical and conceptual apparatus are based on studies from a small number of Western countries. A shift away from universalist perspectives demands placing theoretical questions, rather than countries, at the center.


Problem-centered comparative research 

We have already seen positive signs in this direction in recent decades with the wide availability of studies produced in different regions of the world coupled with plenty of evidence that has challenged, tweaked, and complemented arguments originally developed in the United States – from news framing to agenda-setting. Collectively, this wealth of research has convincingly shown that findings and arguments based on US political communication reflected atypical institutions and dynamics.

It is necessary to further this decentering of political communication studies in order to produce theoretical arguments informed by a wealth of national and regional cases. As Blumler (2017) reminds us, comparative studies are an important “antidote against naïve universalism”. Despite the strength of comparative studies, it is quite appalling to find universal assumptions about “the state of the field” or certain lines of research (e.g. populist communication, disinformation, hate speech) that show no familiarity with studies around the world. Granted, knowing a wealth of research about various countries and regions, even if available in English, is a challenge. What is needed is to take a curious and humble position, aware of the limitations of knowledge grounded in limited number of cases.  

Likewise, comparative analysis needs to consider the weight of political circumstances and events across similar media systems. Contextual factors are not only media factors – the state of public media, the relations between media corporations and political power, and journalistic cultures. The influence of political context is important, too. The backlash against migration and multiculturalism, the presence of charismatic leaderships, the strength of populist movements and political parties, and the particularities of autocratic and hybrid democratic regimes are equally important as contextual factors. These are not just “political” processes, that should be considered important variables for the study of cross-national political communication. They are also political issues that drive specific forms of mediated politics.


Conclusion

In conclusion, media system remains a valuable analytical instrument for understanding fundamental institutional aspects of national media and for comparing media industries across countries. It highlights cross-national similarities and differences that help us understand unique and comparable aspects of national media orders. Also, it signals the importance of finding patterns in public communication, especially among dazzling transformations and apparent similarities across countries. However, the magnitude of the disruptions in public communication make it necessary to revisit the value of “media system” for comparative political communication.

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