In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Systems Theory

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts and General Overviews
  • Cold War Approaches and Critical Revisions
  • The Transformation of CEE Media Systems: A Research Peak
  • De-Westernizing Media Systems Theory
  • Media Systems Theory after Hallin and Mancini’s Comparing Media Systems
  • The Performance of Media Systems
  • The Time Dimension in Media Systems Theory

Communication Media Systems Theory
Josef Seethaler
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0185


This article outlines the paradigms and research traditions in the analysis of the development and organization of media systems. Considering media systems as a set of media institutions and practices that interact with and shape one another, two major strands can be distinguished: (older) normative-critical approaches, which aim at generalizing particular concepts of how media systems should function within society, and (newer) analytical approaches, which attempt to explain the emergence of and changes to media structures and institutions and their impact on media performance and audience behavior. Normative approaches are overshadowed by the political circumstances of the Cold War era, while analytical approaches to date have only a short, though promising, history. Like media systems themselves, media systems theory has evolved within and been influenced by political and cultural contexts. The starting point of much of the research was the notion that the status and structures of mass media are largely determined by the political and social orders and norms within which the media operates. In order to be able to adequately grasp these connections, media systems research developed comparative models and procedures early on, since only a comparison can show the characteristics that prevail in a given geographical context (or temporal context—though this is less often theoretically considered or empirically explored). Thus it comes as no surprise that media systems research has been on the up and up with an overall increasing interest in comparative research in the course of the dramatic political and economic changes triggered by the “third wave of democratization” and the ongoing market deregulation. Considerations on the effects that these phenomena might have on the structure and performance of media systems have led to a new stage in the development of media systems theory, in that more elaborated approaches—such as the “three models of media and politics” proposed by Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini in their book Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics (Hallin and Mancini 2004, cited under Core Texts and General Overviews)—are providing an empirical foundation as opposed to a normative foundation for comparative media system analysis. The present radical transformation in the media imposes yet unknown challenges on media systems research. Due to technological and economic changes, all kinds of boundaries are blurring: between national markets, media genres, journalistic cultures, publics, and even between users and producers. This raises the question of whether media systems research, which is generally focused on previous upheavals of media structures, has sufficient potential to provide a theoretical framework for the current changes, and whether this can also be used to understand future developments.

Core Texts and General Overviews

While comparative research in other social sciences—such as sociology, political science, and psychology—has long been established as its own subdiscipline, it is only in the last two decades that an established body of international comparative research in communication sciences has emerged. However, it has not led to the constitution of its own “comparative communication science.” This is particularly unfavorable for media systems research because it depends heavily on comparative thinking and comparative methods. Not surprisingly, the current state of comparative research in media and communication science in general, and especially in media systems research, is that the insights that are generated are not always based on thorough theoretical foundations, and thus cannot be easily integrated into a cumulative understanding of the analyzed phenomena. Leaving single case studies aside and using van de Vijver and Leung’s famous typology of cross-national and cross-cultural studies as a guidance (provided in their 1997 book Methods and Data Analysis for Cross-Cultural Research), most literature is concerned with exploring the differences between countries and cultures (much too often in a bilateral design, mainly referring to the United States in comparison to another country), as well as the meaning of these differences with the help of context variables. A more influential group of studies aims to establish generalizability of research results across different groups, with the Western Hemisphere usually representing the reference group. Siebert, et al. 1956 can arguably be described as a trendsetting work in this regard. In spite of several updates and alternative classifications, it took almost half a century and the emergence of a disciplinary climate of a growing interest in all kinds of comparative research until theory-driven studies—in the form of analytical inquiries—that finally overcame the normative, Cold War–induced premises underlying prior approaches (see the landmark study Hallin and Mancini 2004) began being conducted. Only at this (highest) stage of research is it possible to relate target aspects to contextual elements in such a way as to validate a theoretical model. These remarks make it obvious that there are only a few publications available that can be regarded as core texts in that they have established a new paradigm and elicited a noteworthy body of research. Similarly, the number of comprehensive overviews that not only describe what has been done, but also try to offer new insights by drawing relationships between the various studies, is rather small. Jakobowicz 2010 paves the way to an informed historical understanding of the development of media systems theory; Hallin 2016 and Hallin and Mancini 2016 give the most recent updates on research activities in this field; Voltmer 2013 focuses on the transition processes in which media systems are involved; and Obijiofor and Hanusch 2011 and de Mooij 2014 expand the media-politics relationship by including cultural contexts from around the globe. Finally, Esser and Hanitzsch 2012 and Thomaß 2013 include broad discussions of methodological issues, which are not least among the merits of both books.

  • de Mooij, Marieke. 2014. Human and mediated communication around the world: A comprehensive review and analysis. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

    This excellent and rather underrated book presents and compares theories and approaches for analyzing media systems from around the world, arguing that media systems are not only embedded in political systems, but are primarily shaped by cultural values that can be seen as more stable than the organization of governments.

  • Esser, Frank, and Thomas Hanitzsch, eds. 2012. Handbook of comparative communication research. New York: Routledge.

    This handbook represents a state-of-the-art report on research in all relevant areas of comparative communication studies, including chapters by Jonathan Hardy (“Comparing Media Systems”) and Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini, in which they discuss critical remarks on their “three models of media and politics.” A separate part of the book is dedicated to conceptual and methodological issues of comparative inquiries in order to pave the way for future research.

  • Hallin, Daniel C. 2016. Media system. In The international encyclopedia of political communication. Edited by Gianpietro Mazzoleni, 801–812. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley.

    The article provides a comprehensive overview of research on media systems, primarily from the perspective of political communication, which is identified as the major driving force for the continued growth and expansion of this area of research. From a methodological point of view, the article refers to the necessity of multilevel approaches in studying the relationships between structures and social agency.

  • Hallin, Daniel C., and Paolo Mancini. 2004. Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511790867

    One of the most elaborated and often-tested media systems theories related to the underlying political and social orders is the “three models of media and politics” proposed by Hallin and Mancini. The three models—polarized pluralist, democratic corporatist, and liberal—are empirically and historically informed and based on a strong commitment to democratic thinking and practice.

  • Hallin, Daniel C., and Paolo Mancini. 2016. Ten years after Comparing Media Systems: What have we learned? Political Communication 34.2: 155–171.

    DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2016.1233158

    The review by the authors of Hallin and Mancini 2004 summarizes the state of research on the then-proposed three models of media and politics and the eighteen countries originally covered by these models.

  • Jakobowicz, Karol. 2010. Media systems research: An overview. In Comparative media systems: European and global perspectives. Edited by Bogusława Dobek-Ostrowska, Michał Głowacki, Karol Jakobowicz, and Miklós Sükösd, 1–21. Budapest: CEU Press.

    Jakobowicz provides not only of the most comprehensive overviews over fifty years of the development of media system classifications, but also makes an effort to compare the various concepts in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses and their enduring contributions to an ongoing debate on where media is and where it is going.

  • Obijiofor, Levi, and Folker Hanusch, eds. 2011. Journalism across cultures: An introduction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    This book is widely acknowledged for providing a holistic and global basis for understanding journalism in different cultural contexts, thus giving proof of the substantial explanatory potential of cultural influences included in the analysis of journalism and the media. It includes a highly informative and truly globally focused chapter titled “Evolving Press Theories and Media Models.”

  • Siebert, Fred Seaton, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Lang Schramm. 1956. Four theories of the press: The authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet communist concepts of what the press should be and do. Urbana, IL: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    Benchmarked against a liberal-democratic system and a market-driven economy, four major theories of how the world’s media system functions are presented: the libertarian and social responsibility theories as well as the authoritarian and Soviet communist theories. This concept represented the leading paradigm in media systems theory for about half a century.

  • Thomaß, Barbara, ed. 2013. Mediensysteme im internationalen Vergleich. 2d ed. Konstanz, Germany: UVK.

    This highly informative book provides a three-fold approach to international research on media systems. It covers methodological issues, research topics (including often-neglected topics such as entertainment media and the gendering of media and journalism), and types of media systems in the various regions of the world.

  • Voltmer, Katrin. 2013. The media in transitional democracies. Cambridge UK: Polity.

    The book explores the interplay of political and media transitions that have taken place within different pathways of democratization in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, considering the role of the past in the transition process, and distinguishing between various types of authoritarianism and the nature of the relations between state and media within these.

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