Statistics in Action: Measuring Freedom of Press and Information

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an award-winning international NGO founded in 1985, is dedicated to defending and promoting press freedom. An important part of the NGOs work is the annual publication of the World Press Freedom Index. 

This index is based on extensive questionnaire work. Here are some key-aspects:

87 qualitative questions arranged in 6 umbrella categories like e.g. transparency, media independence, legislative framework.

An additional quantitative category measures the level of abuses and violence

The questionnaire is translated into 20 languages including Chinese and Russian, and completed for 180 countries.

Most questions are presented with 10-point unipolar scales with number labels. However, the scale endpoints are verbalized. Some questions require yes/no answers and another group of questions has fully verbalized scales with 4 response options.

According to RSF the questionnaire is completed by several hundred experts like journalists, lawyers, scientists and human rights activists. Indeed – a close look at the questionnaire shows that expert knowledge is evidently required to answer. Here is an example[1]:

Ein Bild, das Tisch enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

Rightfully, and as a matter of transparency, RSF clearly states that this survey is not representative according to scientific criteria[2]. Consequently, no inferences are drawn from the results nor are any attempts made to calculate the sampling error.

The responses are finally combined in a weighted manner and the respective formulars are available as well[3].

Despite the deliberate selection of survey participants and the very challenging questions and choice of scales, this survey is capable of providing important insights. This is particularly due to the methodological transparency, which the authors demonstrate in an exemplary manner.

One result of this work is an index that ranges between 0 (best possible score – absolute freedom of press) and 100 (worst possible score). RSF uses the following classification:

Score ClassInterpretation
-15,00Good situation
15,01-25,00Satisfactory situation
25,01-35,00Problematic  -“”-
35,01-55,00Difficult -“”-
>55,00Very serious situation

Here is a snapshot of the latest results, published in January 2022[4]:

First 10 (all scores <15, good situation)Last 10 (all scores >55, very serious situation)
Costa RicaVietnam
New ZealandTurkmenistan
PortugalNorth Korea

This country ranking is an important result. Decisive though is the concrete situation in which media workers operate in the country and which determines the score and country ranking. RSF also provides this description of the situation and thus makes an important contribution to improving the working conditions of media professionals.

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