Plurality refers to the existence of a multiplicity of identities and perspectives from which different groups and people experience social reality. A belief that this diversity should be a criterion for judging how power is distributed in society is termed pluralism; transferred to debates about the media, pluralism is an ideal that calls for versatile media contents and diffuse distribution of power to control the media. In this form, pluralism and plurality are core elements of the legitimization rhetoric of twentieth-century liberal democracies. As such, they are also a contested part of political and social theory and, consequently, of the role of media in society. Evidence of the actual existence of different kinds of plurality in society and in the media, as well as views about the value of the concept itself, remain contradictory. This is due to both the conceptual range over which pluralism has been stretched and the political interests this covers.
Emergence Of The Concept
The term “pluralism” is derived from Latin through (thirteenth-century) French. During the early nineteenth century it is often used in a pejorative sense to refer to people holding more than one official ecclesiastical position at the same time, enjoying the benefits of an office without actually being in residence. In nineteenth-century philosophy, pluralism comes to refer to a belief that the world is made of multiple substances and differing views on matters. Here the belief in plurality is juxtaposed with “monism,” a belief in the underlying unity of reality, implying one ultimate opinion binding to all. In political theory, pluralism appears as a shorthand term for a key belief in twentieth-century liberalism (Laski 1919), according to which power in democracies should be spread between many economic and political pressure groups. To a large degree, then, pluralism takes the actual institutional forms of modern western democracies as an ideal model, implying that these societies are an embodiment of the principle of pluralism. Pluralism thus celebrates western democracies’ forms of institutional systemic differentiation, cultural diversification, and democratization, and implies that the media has been a successful part of this process.
Historically, pluralism as an ideology can be regarded as a reaction to the political challenges of modernity. If the modern scientific revolution challenged the knowledge monopoly (and monism) of the church, other facets of modernity (the market economy, political and religious diversity, secularization) gradually challenged the idea of a simple, hierarchical, and stable social order and power. As one key element in this socio-cultural process of change, modern media – from the printing press to digital broadcasting networks – was from the beginning caught in the middle of this process and debates about it (Thompson 1995; Briggs & Burke 2005). From John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) on there is an evolving tradition of the idea of free speech (Peters 2005), in which the call for pluralistic and diverse media content plays an important role.
In the liberal theory of the press (and its later versions on the social responsibility of the media), the media is given the task of reflecting the constituent groups and identities of a given society. By the 1940s this ideal of pluralism of opinions is well established in the dominant western thinking about the mass media: plurality of media content (opinion and views) comes to serve as the twin of the scientific method (news based on facts). The media is given the tasks of distributing verified and objective information and reflecting relevant group opinions (cf. Commission on Freedom of the Press 1947; Royal Commission on the Press 1950, 1st pub. 1947–1949). More than coincidentally, thus, pluralism as an ideal in general social and political theory as well as in media theory is articulated during the same twentieth-century conjuncture of modernity as two other key concepts of liberal media theory, namely objectivity as a core value of news journalism (cf. Schudson 1978) and the notion of “the market-place of ideas” (Peters 2004).
As part of a functionalist and affirmative theory of modern society, pluralism has also been challenged in the field of media research.
Critical theory (or Marxism) from the late 1960s on has pointed out some key limitations of pluralism’s explanatory power. Critics claim that social diversity and its manifestations in modern societies are from the start framed by uneven social conditions. Hence, the starting point of liberal pluralism – that it suffices to allow recognizable groups to take part in public life – is flawed. Since media institutions in modern western societies are linked to economic and political power, working toward genuine pluralism in the media has to deal with structural inequalities related to both general social conditions and the media. Critical political economists (Murdoch & Golding 2005) of this strand have challenged the liberal media policy of western governments. Their thinking has also informed practical political attempts (ranging from ideas of public service broadcasting to public media subsidies) to secure a plurality of representation in the media. Epistemologically, critical theorists and liberal pluralists share the legacy of modernity, i.e., the idea that the media can be judged on how well it reflects the constituent groups and identities of a given society. Both positions view truth mainly as a matter of correspondence to reality, and a pluralistic debate is seen as a method for finding out the truth or consensus. The fundamental disagreement concerns the performance of the market-driven media system to provide for this: liberal pluralists believe it does; critical theorists think the market forces need to be at least counterbalanced with other logics (Curran 2002).
Another critique of pluralism emerges – somewhat ironically – from multiculturalism, i.e., the growing recognition of the plurality of identities, experiences, and ways of knowing in late modern societies. This shift of perspective is rooted in a broader epistemological turn in social theory and media research, arguing that all representations of social reality are ultimately constructions. Hence, to call for a correspondence between pluralist media contents and the plurality of reality (and thus to call for a reflecting role for the media), is to misplace the question. From a constructivist point of view, the media is always part of the process of how groups and interests are constituted. Therefore, there cannot be a “common” or “neutral” vocabulary of representing the “constituent” groups of society, and any claim for such impartiality is in itself a form of power and ideology.
On the one hand, multiculturalism offers a stinging criticism of the pluralist notion of diversity as such as a way of seriously ethically limiting the role of the media, i.e., media theory of this kind effectively denies us the responsibility for asking what is right. Here multiculturalism criticizes pluralism for not taking new identities, groups, and their representations of reality seriously as part of the public democratic dialogue. Such dialogically grounded multiculturalism points out that identities are constructed in communication, and that this communicative potential of language and communication leads to a media theory which will not celebrate the postponing of ethical judgment in the name of pluralism and free speech. On the other hand, some constructivists also abandon this belief in dialogue and deliberation. For them (Mouffe 1999) society is comprehensively seen as a site of a power struggle between groups and identities, and democracy as a constant struggle of identities with clashes between positions, show of power, and influence, and conversions (instead of consensus) from one belief to another. Here, constructivism is connected to a view of communication and language as ultimately strategic and instrumental. Thus the media can be evaluated on how well it performs the act of recognition of new and constantly emerging plurality groups, identities, and interests in late modern societies, but not (even in theory) on how it is able to provide a site for deliberation and negotiation between diverse positions.
All the theoretical disagreements aside, pluralism sets an important normative goal in evaluating media policy and performance. This opens up the difficult terrain of operationalizing plurality: where and how can it be measured?
On the level of media structures and institutions, a call for pluralism translates into a need for a diverse and diffused pattern of control of media organizations. In liberal democracies this means measuring the concentration of power by media ownership and other forms of economic control, such as advertising and sponsorships. At this level media systems have had a tendency to develop increasing ownership concentration. This anti-pluralist trend has manifested itself in the development of chain-ownership of one media, such as newspapers from the late nineteenth century onward; in the emergence of multimedia companies, combining various media activities such as television, magazines, and newspapers; or as conglomeration, when media companies are part of wider industrial corporative structures (Doyle 2002). The effects of ownership concentration on the diversity of media content are complex: in some current contexts (such as multi-title magazine publishers and multi-channel television corporations) concentration can contribute to diversity (Van der Wurff 2005, Van Cuilenberg 2005), although in others (such as syndicated or corporately shared newspaper material) it can clearly add to the homogenization of media content.
Another focus for measuring media plurality is to look at the diversity of the media workforce. During recent decades, media companies have began to pay growing attention to the cultural diversity of their employees, who by and large are still mostly disproportionately white, male, and upper middle-class, and thus not representative of the plurality of their respective publics. There is a historical liberal pluralist counterargument for this critique: that journalism is a profession and that this enables journalists to act as neutral mediators of social reality. However, a question remains whether calls for professionalism and its particular set of values compromise the ideals of pluralism or diversity in the first place (Glasser 1992; Zelizer 2004). Empirically, there are also some clear indications of international homogenization related to professional journalism and its practices (Hallin & Mancini 2004).
Focusing on the diversity of media content, one way of judging pluralism is to evaluate the access of various groups and their representatives to the media. Research has consistently emphasized that the media in general and journalism in particular reproduce the existing knowledge and power structures of society by offering the “primary definers” and legitimate representatives of routine institutional sources a dominant position in the public (Hall et al. 1978). Through this privileged access these actors also exercise control of the agenda of issues that the media system deems noteworthy. Powerful countries, institutions, and their elite representatives are also able to control the frames of representation in which the media depict the world. Indeed, there is clear evidence of a structural correspondence between the plurality of opinion in the media and the plurality of opinion in the political power elite: mainstream media content is an “index” of the range of legitimate internal disagreements of the power elite (Bennett 1990). However, without contradicting this long-term functionality for the status quo, one should bear in mind that professional news values and presentation techniques cannot be totally reduced to structural power: “the journalistic field” of news production practices also sets conditions for the performance of the powerful actors (Benson & Neveu 2005; McNair 2000). Finally, in terms of media content, plurality of views is also closely tied to the actual theme in question: there are domains of social life (such as art) that can enjoy a much more diverse debate than others (such as foreign policy or national security).
Measuring plurality can also mean considering the points of view of the audience and its choices. It is one thing to measure the diversity that a whole (national) media system provides but sometimes quite another thing to look at what is available as actual choice for the audience (Hellman 2001). Thus, for instance, television programming as a whole can be very diverse but in a given prime-time moment the channel competition can create a stream of very homogeneous content. Indeed, the question of what constitutes the relevant media opinion market (or audience) within which plurality is measured will become all the more complex and important (Van Cuilenberg 2005). It is crucial whether the relevant market is defined geographically as a local, national, or even transnational one, and whether pluralism is measured across media output or inside particular genres of content (news, entertainment, special interests, etc.).
In judging all this and other, similar empirical evidence, obviously a lot depends on the theoretical positions outlined above. Liberal pluralism can, for instance, celebrate enhanced professionalism of media production, while more constructivist accounts would point to the shortcomings of professional routines in either facilitating dialogue or allowing visibility to new, emerging identities and groups. Similar differences of interpretation apply at the structural level. For instance, on the one hand the link to advertising and audience lifestyles has driven the media to create new kinds of profiled content, which increases quantitative diversity. On the other hand this connection equates the market value of social groups with their possibility of being publicly and democratically represented. Thus the logic not only reproduces but also increases social power differences.
Since plurality and pluralism emerge as an essential and essentially positive part of modern western social imaginaries, it is likely that this vocabulary will remain a prominent part of discussions about the role of the media and journalism in society, about how well the media actually perform this role, and about what kind of media policy would enhance pluralism best. However, at least two recent trends pose questions for its usefulness as a framing notion of media performance.
A first set of challenges emerges from the rapid development of media technology. In a digitalized and interactive network environment, many traditional boundaries become blurred. Questions like “Who is a journalist?” or “Is this journalism (or entertainment or advertising)?” are becoming much more complex than in traditional media outlets. Thus the role of the idea of professionalism in debates about media performance is likely to change. Also, since the threshold for being able to broadcast (webcast) your message has dropped dramatically, some believe this will potentially solve some of the structural problems of earlier mass media arrangements. There are also partly legitimate hopes that some audiences will become active and critical partners in surveying both the media’s performance and the news, providing alternative content and exposure (with the help of light media production technology such as mobile phone cameras) and changing “hot spots” of attention and criticism (Benkler 2006).
To be sure, the early twenty-first century has witnessed some interesting and impressive experiments where new media forms enable new kind of organizational patterns for media production: despite all their problems, such phenomena as “wikis,” open source journalism sites, and blogging are evidence of a changing landscape. Since pluralism is a historical construction, it will be affected by all this. For instance, in its most dramatic form, open source ideology suggests that the “collective intelligence” of wiki-based sites does away with the role of experts – and even actually synthesizes opinions and evidence (the very modern distinction of which gives rise to pluralism). Whether pluralism continues to have a central bearing on our evaluation of such media practices is a good question. But for the moment, it is not at all clear that the theoretical strands of debate would become obsolete in the near future. It is, after all, telling that many of the problems the new technology promises to solve are the same ones that the debate around pluralism has attempted to come to terms with.
A second notable set of challenges emerges from outside the media. Despite differences of opinion about timing and depth, there is a broad consensus that modernization has been lately reshaped into a process of globalization. This is a major shift in the economic, political, social, and cultural conditions of the media. Since pluralism was invented during the emergence of the modern nation-state, it tends to look at society as a nation-state. It also situates media in the service of such a unit and in cooperation with particularly national political and economic structures, institutions, and identities. In a world of globalized economy, weak translational political structures, and diverse, diasporic identities, a call for a pluralistic media is perhaps not enough. In the contemporary world, media itself has become such an obvious part of political communication that the agenda for a pluralist media theory – the media to inform about reality and reflect the variety opinions – might not be plausible any more.
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