Media Performance: Mass Communication and the Public Interest

Denis McQuail

The main purpose of Media Performance is to "set out and examine the record of a particular, though very broad, tradition of enquiry into the working of the mass media in their potential `public interest' capacity" (p. 11). Denis McQuail takes on the task of reviewing how media performance has been assessed in the past, and how it could be assessed in the future, using revised "public interest" criteria.

This is no small undertaking. McQuail, a professor of mass communication at the University of Amsterdam, has put together a comprehensive, theory-based review of research on media performance. I do not mean to damn the book with faint praise of being "only" a literature review. It is the best kind of literature review: one that provides an overview not only of what is known but also of what is not known; one that places research into the context of social theory of the media, something that McQuail--author of the well-regarded Mass Communication Theory--knows well.

The "main principles at stake" in media performance, according to McQuail, coincide with the core values of Western societies: freedom, equality, and order. The "public interest" is best served when freedom, equality, and order are maximized. Media Performance reviews past research about such issues, and suggests lines of future research. McQuail also discusses methods of performance research, noting that different questions require different methods. Since so much of media performance is contextual, McQuail favours in-depth case studies as a research method. He questions the ability of the more quantitative methods of content analysis and surveys to produce important information.

As mass media change, McQuail believes that normative concerns about media must change as well. He predicts the decline of national media systems, and thinks that the research agenda should focus more on "securing the benefits of information and communication than in preventing harm from communication" (p. 307). Not everyone will agree with all that McQuail has to say, but there are insights in every chapter of this book, which merits the attention of all who conduct research on the media and the public interest.

Media Performance is not without flaws. McQuail fails to wrestle adequately with the admittedly slippery concept of "public interest." It is the most important concept in the book, and McQuail is aware of its subjective and contingent nature. Rather than offering a theory-based definition, however, he passes the buck, declaring that "we may expect to find the clearest expression of the `public interest'... in laws, regulations, court decisions [and] reports of commissions" (p. 31). Such a statement flies in the face of most of what is known about the workings of law. As Marc Raboy has shown in the context of Canadian broadcasting policy and as numerous others have shown in other contexts, schemes of media law and regulation tend to reflect the interest only of a very unusual segment of the public.

McQuail's deference to regulatory agencies for definitions of "public interest" leads him to review media regulation in a variety of Western democracies. His overview contains several errors and omissions: for example, McQuail shows no awareness of important developments in Canadian media policy in recent years. He writes that "The Broadcasting Act of 1968 is the main legislative instrument" (p. 53), a statement that has not been true since Canada's new Broadcasting Act went into effect in 1991. Media Performance was published in 1992. Its preface is dated March 1992, and the book refers many times to works published in 1992. By 1992 McQuail should have known about the 1991 Broadcasting Act (which was adopted by the House of Commons in late 1990). Even if McQuail can be excused for not being aware of the new legislation, his failure to discuss the important 1986 report of the Task Force on Broadcasting Policy is a curious omission in a book that takes cognizance of five earlier Canadian commissions that investigated media performance and reviewed communications policy.

There are similar problems in McQuail's discussion of U.S. communications policy. He discusses the Fairness Doctrine at some length, treating it as a currently valid norm. However, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, a move that represented a major shift in U.S. broadcasting policy; McQuail's failure to note it is a rather stunning blunder. McQuail also overstates the importance of courts and legal decisions in the day-to-day life of U.S. media.

Such errors make Media Performance inappropriate for classroom use. That said, the book is a valuable resource for all who engage in serious thought about the media and the public interest.



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