Defining Freedom of the Press: a research case study

Freedom of the press is a core value in many societies, but how can we make sure journalists act ethically without limiting that freedom? A pioneering research project led from the University of Sheffield is helping to define the boundaries.

Journalists and photographers on the street

If we all broadly agree that the freedom of the press is very important, then why does the issue generate such controversy? Why are reporters and editors so often in trouble for overstepping boundaries – not just under oppressive regimes but even in nations where freedom of expression is a cornerstone of society? Why can it be so difficult to achieve any consensus on frameworks to regulate the media?

The ability of journalists to hold power to account without interference is central to the civil philosophy underpinning western liberal democracies. In practice, though, the extent of that freedom varies, sometimes to a surprising extent, from one regime to another. The British establishment prides itself on the freedom of the press, but no constitutional provisions exist to safeguard it. American journalists, by contrast, are protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Many more factors come to bear on press freedom in practice, however, and it is worth noting that the US ranks only 45th among 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index – ten places below the United Kingdom (see diagram below). Even in Norway, which the index ranks highest in the world, debate continues over the provisions of Article 100 – the section of the national constitution which protects free speech – and there is concern that proposals to combat 'fake news' and hate speech might also suppress legitimate reporting.

Diagram of the world with countries colour-coded according to their level of media freedom
Countries of the world colour-coded according to their level of media freedom, from deep blue (most free) to deep red (least free). Credit: NordNordWest, Licence: Creative Commons by-sa-3.0 de / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

So when we say we believe in the freedom of the press, what do we really mean? How far do we believe that freedom should extend? Can debates around media liberty ever progress, let alone inform meaningful actions, if we fail to address these questions?

A research project involving the University of Sheffield has set out to address this question. Its potential for positive outcomes is great – with possible benefits for journalists, regulatory bodies, advocacy groups for freedom of expression, social groups who may currently receive discriminatory coverage, and the general public.

Entitled 'Defining Freedom of the Press', the study brings together researchers from different universities to establish benchmarks to define free and ethical journalism. These can be used in turn by journalists and editors to ensure best practice – and by members of the public to understand the principles governing the production of the news that they read, watch and hear.

It is clear that we need to do more in the UK to open up to public scrutiny how journalism works and thereby empower people to be able to evaluate good and bad journalism – journalism that has been produced using ethical practices, or not

Dr John Steel

Defining Freedom of the Press project leader

By establishing a definition of freedom of the press in this way, the research team hopes to help resolve the impasse that has overtaken media regulation in the UK since the publication of the 2012 Leveson report which followed the News International phone hacking scandal. Proposals in the report to tighten the rules governing the conduct of reporters have largely foundered on the counterargument that genuine public service journalism would also be hindered.

In January 2018, for instance, when the House of Lords supported the implementation of a large tranche of Leveson's proposals, the then prime minister Theresa May pledged to overturn its vote. "I believe passionately in a free press," she said in self-justification. "We want to have a free press that is able to hold politicians and others to account." At the same moment the News Media Association, the trade body for newspapers, accused the Lords of attempting to "enforce state-backed press regulation and obstruct investigative journalism, diminishing the public right to know".

How things could change

But if a working consensus can be reached on the ethical uses of media freedom – as the research project sets out to achieve – then this could change. Government and regulators could be in a position to differentiate clearly between journalistic practices which serve the interests of society and those which – like the malpractice examined by Leveson – serve the interests of journalists themselves, and perhaps those of the powerful and others with vested interests in the status quo.

The project's principal investigator Dr John Steel says: "If we think about what we are trying to achieve with our project – to provide a clear set of benchmarks which allow the public to better evaluate the press and its ethical practices – it is clear that we need to do more in the UK to open up to public scrutiny how journalism works and thereby empower people to be able to evaluate good and bad journalism – journalism that has been produced using ethical practices, or not."

In this video, project leader Dr John Steel gives a brief overview of Defining Freedom of the Press

So who are the members of John's team and how are they going about their task? Defining Freedom of the Press (DFoP) is both collaborative and comparative. The work brings together experts from Durham University, the University of Leeds and the University of Sheffield – where John was a lecturer at the outset of the project. And it examines perspectives on media regulation and press freedom from 13 countries, selected for their status among the most highly ranked by the World Press Freedom Index.

Countries included

Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, UK

The research team

Principal investigator

Dr John Steel, University of Derby (previously Sheffield)


Professor Martin Conboy, University of Sheffield
Dr Julie Firmstone, University of Leeds
Dr Carl Fox, University of Leeds
Dr Jane Mulderrig, University of Sheffield
Dr Joe Saunders, Durham University
Dr Paul Wragg, University of Leeds

Postdoctoral research associate

Dr Charlotte Elliott-Harvey, University of Sheffield

Casting the net widely for perspectives is central to the DFoP project's methodology. John points out that the debate on press standards and regulation is often inward-looking in nature, taking place almost exclusively between media academics, journalists and editors, experts in media law and campaigners. "So we were keen to open up this debate," he says, "beyond the traditional academic field of media and journalism studies to look to other disciplines – linguistics, history, law, philosophy – to help make sense of these issues through different perspectives."

But it doesn't end there. DFoP will take into consideration viewpoints from much further – well beyond academia. "These are not just perspectives from journalists, but also from regulators and non-journalists, usually representatives from NGOs and third-sector organisations. We envisage that by looking at different press cultures, practices, their ethical frameworks and how these are policed – as well as drawing on perspectives from sections of the public – we'll get a greater sense of perspective when reflecting on our own press cultures and ethical practices in the UK."

From the initial stage of interviews and scrutiny of ethical codes across the 13 nations, the team is generating data sets which can then be examined by participants back in the UK in the project's second phase. Focus groups will bring together people from a range of backgrounds, all with some kind of interest in media standards, both professional and personal. They'll reflect on the findings from the international stage of the project, which John says will "stimulate innovative thinking about the UK context".

Methods of data analysis

Focus groups will examine the findings from the European stage of the project using several methods:

  • a phenomenographic approach to discourse (how experiences take place in context)
  • discourse analysis (how ideas about power are communicated)
  • thematic analysis (what sorts of themes emerge from the data)
  • a historical and cultural analysis of the contexts

    Exciting outcomes

    The project's wide scope of inputs is matched by an expansive set of outcomes, with some genuinely exciting possibilities for impact.

    Of the several groups that stand to benefit from the research, the largest is the general public. Greater media literacy among the population will mean wider empowerment to understand and analyse the news people consume. Indeed, early results from the research suggest that countries ranked the highest for press freedom tend also to be those with the highest levels of media literacy among the public.

    So to help develop media literacy in the UK, the DFoP team is developing a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course – which will be launched by the University of Sheffield soon and be freely available to anyone wanting to take part. This three-week course will take learners through the history of the press and the idea of press freedom, encouraging them to think about journalistic practices and the decisions that journalists make on a daily basis.

    John says: "The MOOC is key to our commitment to news media literacy and will allow learners to draw from our research findings, as well as develop their own understanding of the news environment and journalistic work and its value."

    Street scene with a melée of press photographers

    Among the wider population, furthermore, there exist sections who John says "have historically suffered at the hands of bad journalism – often minority groups who are poorly represented and regularly stigmatised in the mainstream press." Defining Freedom of the Press aims to offer some redress. The project is reaching out to organisations such as Tell MAMA and Trans Media Watch which have sprung up to monitor the media's treatment of minority groups and work towards fairer coverage. DFoP researchers will ensure that voices from these groups are represented in the project's outputs, and that their interests form part of the ethical framework it sets out.

    Once the project has defined those parameters of media freedom and ethics, the framework will be a resource that benefits more groups. One of these will be campaigners and advocacy groups who work to defend the liberty of journalists. Another will be the media regulators. Both of these will potentially be in a stronger position to justify their standpoints and their actions given the context of a commonly understood definition of media freedom, which is currently lacking.

    Finally, of course, journalists themselves will be empowered by the framework of a clear and definitive set of ethical parameters. On one count the parameters will serve as a clear reference point, guiding the decisions they make in producing journalism. On another, they could benefit from a more media-literate readership who will better appreciate the basis on which the work has been done.

    Final outputs

    At the end of their work in 2021, the DFoP team will hold a conference and exhibition, where they'll launch a documentary film which sets out the rationale for their work and explore the issues they've looked at in UK media ethics and regulation.

    The team will also produce a report for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which will be available to all the groups identified in the media industry as potential beneficiaries – journalists, regulators, publishers and so on. Additionally, the project will publish a number of academic outputs including working papers, journal articles, and a book.

    Clearly the DFoP team is addressing an issue which is more nuanced than it would seem from the typically polarised nature of the debate taking place around it. There are no easy answers. The project still has a year to run at the time of writing, and no outcome is ever guaranteed. But the potential benefits for several groups are clear and the excitement among the team would seem to be justified.

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