The summer project that’ll last a bit longer

Introduction and Abstract to Press Freedom DH

A comparison between Turkey and Finland

Many measures of press freedom developed by advocacy groups, such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, are simple aggregations of point scores derived from extensive questionnaires. The values that are shown on these indices are thus the results of several calculations of very different indicators of press freedom. This is to ensure that press freedom scores can be compared across countries and time periods.

However, the image created skews its interpretation. It portrays countries with similar scores as suffering from the same problems. For example, as the RWB recognizes itself, “Africa’s newest country [South Sudan] is torn by civil war and has an extremely polarized press. In Afghanistan, it is the state’s ability to guarantee media safety that is lacking.” Despite differing causes of low press freedom measures, South Sudan and Afghanistan have almost identical scores: 38.04 and 37.44, respectively. When searching for solutions, it does not help, and is in fact counterproductive, to believe that all countries suffer from the same problems.


Several pundits and non-profit advocacy groups have however no problem in pontificating why the best countries on the index occupy the position at the top. Finland has been a hot topic in press freedom circles because of the 13 years that the RWB has produced their index, the Scandinavian country has come out on top 11 of those years. In the debate to understand why, these reasons pop up:

1. The Finnish press enjoys a strong and healthy market fueled by high readership, because Finns seem to read a lot of newspapers, especially in print. According to some definitions of journalistic freedom, the press needs to be free of economic constraints in addition to political independence. A healthy market means publications have less incentive to adjust normal practices to gain readership and revenue.

2. There is a a high degree of self-regulation by the media through the Council for Mass Media, which creates and maintains journalistic ethics and standards. The Union for Journalists also has large membership. Finnish journalists act as each other’s system of enforcement for high journalistic standards.

3. The Finnish government encourages legislation that increases access to information; there is a culture of open access.

4. The Finnish government is one of the least corrupt and most transparent governments in the world. Government suppression or restriction of the media is thus unnecessary, although this does not account for non-government entities that seek to censor unfavorable publications.

At the same time, the proponents of these arguments must also recognize that Finland simultaneously exhibits some traits of a country with a low press freedom score: the government actively enforces laws that aim to protect religion and ethnicity from defamation. The media in Finland is also largely own by only three companies, which one would believe decreases the level of independence of individual news media.

How does the level of press freedom relate to the journalistic environment?

The RWB published along with their index a study that analyzed the relationship between their values and five other measures (per capita GDP, HDI, political stability, oil-derived government revenue, and percent of GDP devoted to the military). They found a positive correlation coefficient between each, but they leave out any indication of a rigorous method, other questions they could have asked, or the full extent of the data they used. If the goal is to seek solutions to press freedom violations, there is a second problem. The variables chosen are not the most useful: they are only indirectly related to the press body itself, and they are derived from much larger-scale factors and thus affect and are affected by countless other variables. This results in a blurry image of whether these measures come from a lack of freedom or lead to low freedom scores.

The above question narrows the scope to forces which directly affect the press, not at the country level, but at the institution-, organization-, or even individual-level. The question is one I hope to answer with my project and the one that current indices and projects do not attempt.

“Journalistic environment” is a term made more specific from a term I initially chose: “quality.” It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly quality entails, and its much harder to measure. Quality is however influenced by the environment from which it comes, and that environment is composed of more variables that are easily quantified. I’ve itemized the definition into four components, all of which influence the choice of topics and tone in publishing content:

1. Topics/sentiment – What a newspaper chooses to publish and which tone they choose to use are indicative of a newspaper’s mentality. Running topic, sentiment, word clouds, and key word in context (KWiC) analyses on specific newspapers surrounding specific can pinpoint changes in a newspaper’s approach to publicizing. The results from this component analysis of the state of the journalistic environment will be the crux of the study because it can provide the clearest examples of change relative to other factors.

2. The level of independence directly affects the kinds of topics and tones chosen to portray a story, and independence is directly linked to a few quantifiable factors. These are the measures I will use to represent independence: the presence of a council or organization of journalists whose job it is to self-regulate general news media; market strength as defined by factors such as readership and advertising revenue; the concentration of the control of the media in a certain number of corporations; and the level of respect the news media holds in the public’s eye, which can be derived from Pew Research surveys on the public perception of the news in each country.

3. Self-censorship or prescriptive censorship is the most unquantifiable component of a journalistic environment, but it can also be the most destructive of a system. What can be quantifiable, however, are the things that induce fear of publishing content and cause this kind of censorship. I will thus consider things like legislation against defamation of religions, ethnicities, people, or the like and number of arrests, threats of violence, and deaths in a country.

4. The reasons that media would be and is suppressed should also be considered. These are most often corruption in the government. There are however many places where press suppression does not come from the government but by non-state actors who have similar levels of power. In these cases, the ways they execute power are through intimidation, often physically, and that can be counted in the above component. Generally, measures of corruption will cover all those in power who may want to suppress media.

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These measures are largely included in many press freedom measures, but as mentioned above, the values are not broken down into their constituent components. I have not been able to get access to the RWB index broken down into separate components, but the Freedom House press freedom index, while not as specific in its aggregated form, does provide some breakdowns on its website.

These press freedom indices however do not include analyses of the content of the press itself. That is how this project will benefit the global discussion on press freedom: it includes a text/content/sentiment analysis of newspapers to reveal change. This helps answer more directly the question of how press freedom affects the “quality” of journalism itself. It puts a more tangible and visible face to the effects of press freedom.

The Turkey Connection

Turkey suffers from an extremely low press freedom score, brought down but frequent government crackdowns on newspapers, television stations, cartoonists, and individual social media users. The press is very familiar with the processes the government uses to suppress them, and the adjustments they make to their publications as a result are unmistakable. The changes that have wrought the individual articles have not as of yet been documented. I am very familiar with English-language newspapers in circulation in Turkey, as well as hot topics in the last 10-15 years. The factors that press freedom advocates believe are responsible for high press freedom scores in Finland are easily found for the Turkish case.

I thus aim to shape my project as a comparison between the most press-friendly country in the world, and one that desperately needs to reform its relationship with its press. I envision an analysis that considers the four factors that constitute a journalistic environment, depicted along two timelines for each country. The latter three factors, including press freedom measures, can be plotted along the timeline. These may be legal changes, global trends, and elections. A few points along each timeline would indicate where I will have done text analyses of English-language newspapers surrounding certain nationally impactful events. The analyses would cover content covered before and after the events that were meaningful to press freedom. Viewing both sides in light of the changes will shed light on to how the press itself changes.


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