Can we compare media systems?


Colin Sparks
Department of Journalism,
Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong


Comparative studies have exploded over the last decade or so, although the reasons for this development are far from obvious. In media studies the dominant paradigm by far has been that advanced by Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini in their 2004 book Comparing Media Systems: three models of media and politics, which, to the relief of many commentators, has effectively replaced Four Theories of the Press as the canonical text in this field. Despite their own express reservations, the basic model they propose remains the pervasive framework for comparative study across a wide range of systems. This paper traces the genealogy of comparative studies in media and communication and critically interrogates some of the fundamental theories upon which contemporary work rests. It examines whether the “methodological nationalism” which is such a pervasive element in comparative studies can be sustained in the age of the internet. It interrogates the concept of the “media system” as the unit of investigation and whether the evident concentration upon media system and political system is an adequate starting point for understanding the multiplicity of media practices. The overall conclusion of this investigation is to claim that the aim of overarching systemic comparison is unlikely to be realised and the way forward is through more modest and limited comparison of different dimensions of media practice in different localities.