Social Responsibility Theory

Social responsibility is ethics that guide any action, be it in media or other organizations, that put an obligation towards environment, society, culture and economy. The media like any other sector should not harm, but should promote environment and socio-cultural aspects in relation to the economy of the place.

Social Responsibility theory of mass media is relatively a new concept which started in the mid-20th century and is used mostly by developing and least developed countries. The theory started from Europe and took a shape with the Commission on the Freedom of Press that happened in United States in 1949. The model was designed formally by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm in 1956 in their book. It encourages total freedom to press and no censorship, but it should be regulated according to social responsibilities and external controls. Content is also filtered through public obligation and interference.

The theory replaced libertarian theory with the view that libertarianism was outdated. The theory also incorporates some aspects of authoritarian theory. After the emergence of this theory, professionalism in media started to be taken seriously.

Quote of freedom, "May we never forget that freedom is not free"

Social Responsibility Theory Concepts

“Freedom of expression under the social responsibility theory is not an absolute right, as under pure libertarian theory. One’s right to free expression must be balanced against the private rights of others and against vital society interest.
- Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm

The social responsibility theory of mass media changed the way press published news from objective reporting to interpretative reporting. Before this theory, facts were presented without any interpretation. The audience interpreted it the way they wanted to. This caused problems as interpretation was not based on reality and it affected the social order. Interpretative reporting and investigative reporting started to uncover the reality behind every case.

In Social Responsibility Theory, the press is taken to be for the people and society. The tasks of the press is to make a code of conduct and follow it, to develop a standard in journalism, to make journalism better, to protect journalists and to have penalties if any journalist violates the code of conduct. This way, the facts provided by the press are analyzed and interpreted so that the people get true information and understandable news. This helps maintain social harmony by revealing social evils like corruption and discouraging other bad conducts.

The media is taken as a place for the voiceless to have a voice and develop public opinions where each and every person has the right to speak, express and publish. . It is considered not an end but a tool for social development. Therefore, the objectives of media are stated to inform, document, analyze, interpret, mediate and mobilize by creating and finding solutions.

Major Features of Social Responsibility Theory

  • Private press ownership
    Press is supposed to be owned privately. The government does not own the press. The private owners should publish within the ethical guidelines and in a responsible way.
  • Helps democracy prosper
    Media helps in maintaining democracy and does not encourage authoritarianism or communism.
  • Media as a democratic institution
    Media is not a part of the government and it must work on its own. It has the freedom to do anything they want, just not work out of the ethical standards.
  • Public participation
    Public must get to participate through comments, response, write and get involved in all aspects of media's work.
  • Emphasis on social responsibility
    The media must be responsible towards the society.
  • Self-regulation in media
    The media must have some boundaries within itself to be ethical. The regulations are to be followed by all the media professionals involved in the particular institution.
  • Code of ethics
    All the media institutions must have a written or unwritten code of ethics which should be the standard followed by all.
  • Professional standards
    The quality of the publishing should be maintained, false interpretation of any information should be avoided.
  • Media role of criticizing government
    Media is allowed to criticize the government roles, works and policies. It is done to help the government get better.
  • Helping eradicate social problems
    Media must speak against and aware people about social problems as it is media's responsibility to work for the betterment of the society.
  • Pluralistic media (including ideas and people from different groups)
    Media must write the views of different groups of people and not only about a single group. It must never be biased.
  • Social benefit
    Media must work for the society and only do the things that are beneficial to the society. It should not write about the things that are ambiguous or contradictory as those message might cause conflict in the society.

Examples of Social Responsibility Theory

Reports of health news in the media can be taken as media acting socially responsible. The media gives information and awareness on health problems. It also provides awareness on some basic health problems like diarrhea and how to cure them. The media gives information about epidemics and health hazards. Here, acting responsibly is by not spreading wrong news and panic. There have been instances of mass panic among the people because of some misunderstood news on health published by various media. Also, advertisements of harmful substances like cigarettes and alcohol are considered to be wrong according to the social responsibility theory.

Reporting on the performance of government institutions and unveil tyranny and corruption by the media is also an example of socially responsible media as Media acts like a critic of the government. But, there are times when the media has severely damaged the reputation of some politicians and political parties through irresponsible journalism, leading to major conflicts in the society.

Strengths of Social Responsibility Theory

  • It helps in avoiding conflicts during wars and conflicts.
  • It accepts public opinion and works for the citizens.
  • Press and media houses do not have monopoly as rules and ethics guide them.
  • The media publishes truth due to regulatory activities and their moral obligation to do so .
  • Yellow journalism decreases as media can be questioned by the law and public.
  • There is pluralism and diversification on news and people involved.
  • The voiceless and marginalized people are able to raise their voice.

Weaknesses of Social Responsibility Theory

  • Ethics are always vague, ambiguous and differs from case to case.
  • It is difficult to determine who sets clear principles and standards.
  • Social responsibility and ethics are morally obligatory things. Any form of legal limitations should not be imposed if media is just working in the principle of responsibility. Laws are authoritative and not democratic concepts.