Francis A. Beer
G. R. Boynton

Democracy is the foundational myth of contemporary western culture. It is understood to be sweeping the globe. United States political leaders speak and act in its name as they prosecute the “war on terror’ supporting, opposing, and changing political regimes in other states.. Democracy solves all problems: social, economic, political. Though generally believed to be worth it, the price of democracy is often high. Mythic realization can involve mass bankruptcy, imprisonment, and death. The tree of freedom, as Jefferson told us, is watered with the blood of tyrants—and also those who oppose them.

Democracy, in principle, constrains political leaders with numerous institutional mechanisms—founding constitutions, bills of rights, checks and balances, separation of powers, minority rights, and freedom of the press. The press operates within national societies and also across them. As it moves beyond national boundaries, it assumes a different profile. In search of a wider audience, it must evolve the content that will appeal to them.

We have been engaged in a longstanding research program has focused on news media that aspire to a global audience (Beer & Boynton, 2004; Beer& Boynton, 2003). We have recorded two television news programs: CNN's WorldView from 1998 through 2000 and BBC's World News from 2001 through 2003. We archived just over 1,100 broadcasts with more than 12,000 stories. The news programs regularly announced themselves as broadcasting for a global audience. CNN's WorldView, for example, often began the broadcast with "broadcast live around the world." In addition to the self-characterization, their choice of stories reinforces the conclusion that they intended to address a global audience. Eighty-seven percent of the stories were global in focus. Only 13% were stories about events in the U.S. or Britain that were national in focus -- stories that did not involve other nations. These are the data we have for analysis.

Since the media are children of democracy, it seemed reasonable to examine how they treat their parents. How do they present democracy?

First Result

The most striking result is the incidence of stories in which the word 'democracy' is used. Searching the text of the 12,000 stories finds 'democracy' in only 2.3% of them. There is a modest difference between Worldview and World News. Democracy appeared in 2.4% of the WorldView stories. For World News the percentage was smaller -- 1.7% Democracy is rarely spoken. It is not big news.

There is an additional procedure that can be used to examine the importance of stories in which 'democracy' is spoken. The more important stories are scheduled earlier in the broadcast than are the less important stories; important stories come first.

Order of Appearance

Democracy occurs

Democracy does not occur

First 5 stories



Remainder stories






Half of the stories about democracy are one of the first five stories in a broadcast, but only thirty-three percent of other stories are among the first five. The media people treat stories about democracy as somewhat more important than other stories, but it is a good deal less than an overwhelming difference.

If democracy is sweeping the globe it is not being carried by media that aspire to a global audience.

The Themes

There are five types of stories about democracy: stories about flawed democracies, stories about fragile democracies, stories about a political leader urging the adoption of democracy, stories about pro-democratic movements, and stories celebrating democracy.

Speaking About Democracy
Celebrating Democracy
Urging Democracy
Fragile Democracies
Flawed Democracies
Pro-democracy Movements

Celebrating Democracy

Poland, South Africa, and The Wall were the stories celebrating democracy.

The Pope returned to Poland in 1998 to the acclaim of the parliament and the people. "'Look . . . what has happened to us!' Standing before a democratically elected parliament in a free and increasingly prosperous Poland, it was a papal summary of the changes that have taken place since he, the Pope, first inspired Polands march toward freedom 20 years ago." And when he finished the audience rose and spontaneously broke into the Polish national anthem.

The story had all of the features of a celebration. Not simply the joy, but also the warning of the Pope about keeping alive the values for which they had fought, and a reminder, at the graves of the hundreds of thousands imprisoned by Russia, "reminders of Poland's suffering at the hands of others, reminders of how important it is to live in a land that is free."

These are the words of CNN's WorldView. They told the story as a nation honoring a leader and celebrating their own freedom.

Mandela's leading South Africa to a race free democracy was celebrated twice in 1998. First, during a trip of President Clinton to South Africa where he was shown the prison room in which Mandela had spent eighteen years. "It was an historic journey back. 'This was my home, it was so large. I don't understand now why it is so small.' South African president Nelson Mandela showed U.S. president Bill Clinton where he spent 18 years. 'The bed was here.' An awe inspiring moment for the younger president. 'My first thought was thanks that the person who lived in that cell could live all those years without having his heart turn to stone, and give up on his dreams of South Africa.'said Clinton" Then six months later a second celebration when Mandela was given the Congressional Gold Medal.

In 1999 they celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall. Gorbchev was there, Kohl was there, George Bush was there. Ten years before they had been the prime movers in taking down the wall. Now they returned to celebrate -- with a joyful response from the crowds who joined in the celebrating.

That was 1999. There has been no celebration since. Celebrating democracy is the least frequent story about democracy; only 7.7 percent of the stories are celebrations.

Urging Democracy

Cuba, Uganda, China, Malaysia, Yugoslavia, Montenagro, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Eastern europe generally, Palestine, Iraq and other countries were encouraged to take up or strengthen democracy. Stories in which a political leader, usually an American, encouraged a nation to strengthen democracy were 21.8 percent of all the stories about democracy.

The tone was set in 1998. Most favored nation for China was on the political agenda and president Clinton was going to China. A political TV ad pointed out the stakes. Two small girls were playing. One was a very blond caucasian; the other an asian child. "It's not childs play," said the announcer as the children played and shared on the screen. "As they learn more about democracy we can help each other grow . . . Tell congress that trade can be the bridge to a better world for all," the announcer said as the two girls hugged. This message came from the Business Roundtable. Democracy and economy go hand in hand for a better world.

Vice president Gore took this message to the ASEAN meeting in Malaysia. "Democracy confers a stamp of legitimacy that reforms must have in order to be effective. And so among nations suffering economic crises we continue to hear calls for democracy and reform in many languages: people's power . . . We hear them today, right here, right now among the brave people of Malaysia." The Malaysian government did not find that a helpful message, but vice president Gore reiterated this theme the next day -- democracy and economy.

And President George Bush carried the same message to Eastern Europe. He made his first important foreign policy address in 2001 in Poland. NATO is our indispensable ally, he said. Then he turned to Eastern Europe. "Let us tell all those who struggled to build democracy and free markets what we have told the Poles. From now on what you build you keep." Democracy and free markets -- his vision "of a greater, freer, and more democratic Europe."

One-fifth of the stories about democracy involved a political leader encouraging a nation to adopt or strengthen democracy. The message was not always democracy and economy, but it usually was. This was the message flowing through the global communication network.

Fragile Democracies

When the mayor of Moscow supported returning the statue of the founder of the KGB to its position dominating the city it was only the last in a long sequence of stories raising questions about the fragility of Russian democracy.

There were many stories about events suggesting the fragility of democracy in the countries in which they occurred. They were 26.1 percent of all the stories about democracy. But the dominant story was Russia. Over and over world leaders found reasons to be concerned about the commitment of Russian citizens and Russian leaders to democracy, and over and over those worries were broadcast by WorldView and World News.


Russia got democracy and free markets, but they did not get prosperity. Corruption did not go away.


Ten years ago they had democracy, free markets, and hope. They no longer have hope; they turn to drink.


Expert claims that attempting both democracy and free markets without experience produced problems.


Corruption is widespread in Russia. Yeltsin is weak leader, and concern about what to do.


Putin is elected president. Clinton calls to congratulate and presses Putin on continuing democracy.


Clinton in Europe talks about Russia sticking to democracy despite economic hardships.


Head of media conglomerate arrested. A threat to free press and democracy.


Free press is threatened as independent TV and magazines are taken over or shut down.


Mayor of Moscow support re-installing statute of founder of KGB

Nine stories documented the suffering of Russians and the fragility of the hold of democracy.

But Russia was not the only story. Joe Lieberman rose in the Senate to say that the Clinton's transgressions challenged the foundation of American democracy.

When Netanyahu was indicted for crimes in Israel in 2000 an expert said this could seriously undercut democracy if the people could not trust their leaders.

The president of Indonesia was said to face a challenging task maintaining democracy after a series of protests, resignations, and fractured elections.

In 2001 the situation in Northern Ireland was equally fragile as the catholics and protestants both found reasons to withdraw from agreements setting up the democratic structure that had been worked out with great difficulty.

Venezuela, the Netherlands, Iran, Nigeria, Afghanistan, South Africa -- some of the governments seemed less likely to be seriously challenged than others, but in these and other countries events were interpreted as possibly threatening to their democracy.

Flawed Democracy

The most consistent theme in reporting about democracy was flawed democracy. Stories about flawed democracy number 65, which is more than 10 a year, and make up 27.8 percent of the stories we analyzed.

Most are like the Pakistan story. The military took over and Musharaf declared himself chief executive in October of 1999. Rooting out corruption was his justification and is a common theme in such takeovers. A dozen stories followed over the next four years. He was visited by the U.S. ambassador calling for a quick return to democracy. Commonwealth diplomats visited the new head of state calling for a quick return to democracy. The former prime minister, who had been democratically elected, was taken into court, accused of crimes, and then permitted to leave the country. In 2000 -- will Bill Clinton visit Pakistan on his trip to India? Then Musharaf announced that Pakistan would return to democracy in four phases. The first phase seems to have been joining the war on terrorism. After becoming a recruit the 'pressure' to return to democracy seemed to fade -- particularly pressure by the United States. Musharaf and Bush stood side by side as Bush praised his willingness to fight terrorists and right the economy of his country

The second phase was a referendum on his continuing in office for an additional five years which he won with 80% of the vote in 2002. Elected dictator is an interesting status.

Next came what he called "free and fair elections" for a new parliament in which his rivals could not run for office. The full return to democracy awaits the fourth phase sometime in the indefinite future.

Awaiting full democracy is a familiar story repeated in one variation after another 65 times.

Pro-Democracy Movements

Good news has been hard to find in the stories about democracy, but there are two stories about pro-democracy groups that succeeded. In 1998 Kim Dae Jung was elected president of South Korea. He had started his political career as a pro-democratic activist protesting the military dictatorship of Korea. Now he was president.

In 2001 the DVP won the largest number of seats in Taiwan's parliament. This was the pro-democracy party in Taiwan becoming a majority for the first.

The other 39 stories about pro-democracy movements, 16.7 percent, are stories of pathos. Stories about groups willing to put their bodies on the line for democracy but who are unsuccessful. Aung San Suu Kyi  is the symbol of striving for democracy in Burma. The students in Iran are the backbone of the reformist movement as they challenge the Shia hold on governing the country. In Macau only 9 pro-democratic protesters rallied as Macau was returned to China.

The Chinese were the pro-democratic activists most frequently mentioned, and Tiananmen Square was the symbol of the movement.

Fourteen of the 39 stories were about the pro-democracy activists in China. But the Chinese story collapsed into further pathos. Tiananmen Square was a courageous political stand. That was followed by a decade of protest and arrest. Ten years later the protests had changed their focus. They were about the practice of falun gong and income. Democracy was no longer the center of the demonstrations.


Global video news can be seen as one dimension of globalizing imperialism, through which large media corporations seek to impose Western culture and values on non-Western people. This is partly true. At the same time, such Western culture advances a democratic agenda. In the process, it starts to develop a global press that is corporate but free by Western standards. Its technology and practices serve as a model for non-Western media to compete and complicate the global television news space--to make it global not only in form but also in content and interpretation. The good news stories, celebrating democracy are few and far between. The bad news stories are far more prevalent. As the democratic media spread the democratic myth, they are quite critical—of others.


Francis A. Beer and G. Robert Boynton (2004). “Globalizing Political Action: Building bin Laden and Getting Ready for 9/11” (with G. R. Boynton), The American Communication Journal 7.

Francis A. Beer and G. Robert Boynton (2003). “Globalizing Terror” POROI Journal 2, 1