Opinion: press freedom helps to shape fundamentally important processes in our societies and protects us from bad political actors

Good journalists, bad social scientists and all politicians have at least two things in common: they are aware of the fact that the way you present data or a single piece of information frames the story and they use this to achieve their goals. For example, you could argue that too much was made in the media recently about Ireland’s fall of two places from 14th to 16th in Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

Three observations should calm those who were alarmed by the headlines. Firstly, you can fall in rankings because other countries have improved, while your country has not changed. Secondly, while Ireland’s score has worsened, it has only changed by 0.51 on an index that ranges from 0 to 100. Finally, our score of 14.59 leaves Ireland in the top category of countries that Reporters without Borders considers to have "good" press freedom, although an equivalent fall next year would see us in the "fairly good" group.

But this was good journalism because it brought attention to the notion of press freedom. In addition to its intrinsic value, good social science has shown press freedom plays a role in shaping fundamentally important processes in our societies and protects us from bad political actors.

All the news that's fit to read

A number of different studies have shown that countries with more press freedom tend to be perceived as less corrupt. As one of the studies put it, "a free press is bad news for corruption" as the press serves a monitoring role in the fight against corruption. One might even view the press as serving a punishment role in the same way that publishing lists of tax defaulters’ names imposes an additional cost in terms of reputation on tax evasion.

Both of these roles of a free press drive up the expected cost of corruption and therefore reduce the willingness of people to engage in corrupt acts. The potential for monitoring and punishment to serve as an anti-corruption policy is also well studied and understood although in a laboratory setting rather than "in the wild." Since we also know that a perception of corruption is detrimental in terms of economic wellbeing, and indeed happiness, one might conclude that a free press can, on average, meaningfully improves peoples’ lives.

Countries that are heavily dependent on FDI like Ireland would do well to keep an eye on perceptions of both press freedom and corruption

One wrinkle in this story is that much of our direct evidence on the link between the press and corruption is based on perceptions of corruption and perceptions of press freedom rather than something objective. As perceptions of corruption can differ from the reality, one might conclude that the real relationship between press freedom and corruption is unclear. A press that is perceived to be free could influence opinions as to how corrupt a country is, even if the mechanism outlined above is too weak to keep actual corruption in check.

I am currently working on a project with colleagues here in DCU that examines the effects of press freedom on measures of corruption that are arguably more objective. However, even if perceptions are "wrong", they still seem to matter for outcomes such as economic growth and foreign direct investment (FDI). Most studies conclude that a perception of corruption repels FDI and that the effect is rather large. Therefore, countries, particularly those that are heavily dependent on FDI like Ireland, would do well to keep an eye on perceptions of both press freedom and corruption, as well as the reality of both.

If simple radio and TV broadcasts are this effective, how persuasive might tailored and targeted messages be?

Economists can also point to instances of the media shaping "non-economic" outcomes. One terrifying study points to the role that radio played in the consolidation of Nazi power. Once the Nazis had taken over, the authors showed that radio availability predicts enrolment in the party and anti-Semitic sentiment and acts. However, during the Weimar period, radio availability curbed the spread of Nazi support.

The potential for the media to sway people does not seem to have diminished. Another fascinating paper demonstrates a "Fox News effect" in how towns that gained access to Fox News saw an increase in the Republican vote share in the 2000 election. While the overall swing was relatively small, the authors of that study argue that it was enough to change the outcome in a close election.

When I first read these papers, I was struck with the thought that if simple radio and TV broadcasts are this effective, how persuasive might tailored and targeted messages be. This question has continued to preoccupy me in light of the recently revealed Facebook shenanigans. I really hope that good journalists, good social scientists and good politicians are thinking about it too.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ