Can we Fix the Current Mess?: Public Media vs Commercial Media

Give it some thought and you will perhaps appreciate that the advantages of a well-funded public media are abundant.

Commercial media is driven by a profit motive. They are literally motivated to provide content that keeps us constantly enraged so that we remain hooked to them and thus generate revenue via advertising income. That is a distinct conflict of interest.

In contrast to that, having a publicly funded, but truly independent, media outlet means that you have content that is just focused on bringing you news. Gone is the need to apply some left/right spin to keep you hooked and coming back for more.

Do we have examples?

Sure, PBS is a great example. They are publicly funded and also a non-profit. The Wikipedia page that describes them can be found here. A vast majority of those polled (76%) rank them as the “Most Trusted” Institution for 18 Consecutive Years. That is understandable because they are free from the news shock jock role, and free from paying homage to any specific political leaning. If one guy claims it is pissing down outside and another guy claims it is a bright clear day, they are free to just go outside, take a look, and then come back and report what they find.

Another rather famous example of publicly funded media is of course the UK’s BBC. Love them our loath them, there is no denying the huge cultural impact the BBC has had.

So where am I going with this?

A new study has been published within The International Journal of Press/Politics. It is titled “Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries”.

Let’s take a look at what it reveals.

The Study Itself

If you click the link above, you will hit a paywall.


Oh but wait, if you don’t have access to a library then you can still get the full paper via this link.

OK, so what is this study about?

The background idea is this – Strong and well-funded public media brings a lot of benefits. Namely …

  • It helps to strengthen democracies through diverse and critical news coverage that is far superior than any commercial alternatives.

The additional thought is that this is particularly true when it is both well-funded and also protected from all political interference.

To test this, the study authors examined public media, funding levels, audience share, and looked to see if any of this correlated with the strength of the democracy that they served. In total they looked at 33 nations spread over the entire globe.

What did they Find?

Their study did indeed confirm it all…

Our comprehensive analysis of these 33 public media systems shows that funding mechanisms that deliver high levels of secure (multiyear) funding and regulatory structures that establish “arm’s-length” relationships between public media and governments con- sistently go hand in hand with strong support for and engagement with democratic processes.

Who Came Top of their List?

Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Germany, UK, Uruguay.

All very strong democracies, also all with well funded public broadcasters.

Well yes, but what about the US?

Well done the list. Yes, there exists CPB, PBS and NPR, but their public audience share is only 2%, and the degree of funding granted is tiny.

The Point is This

American Democracy is in serious trouble. It is distinctly possible that regardless of how people vote, vast numbers of people will have no confidence in out outcome.

Should we be surprised with vast tranches of the population are being fed nothing but a diet of commercial news that is driven by the need for profit to keep us constantly inflamed and angry?

If we are to address this, then we can’t just keep doing more of the same and hope that things work out differently. We need to seriously consider doing something rather different.

Back to the study for a second.

How much do those strong robust nations spend on public media per person?

Norway – $110.73 per person, Iceland – $89.15 per person, Sweden – $82.75 per person, etc…

Meanwhile, how much does the US spend?

Yep, almost nothing. Just $3.16 per person per year.

The U.S. is a clear outlier in having the world’s largest GDP (Worldometer 2020) while its public media receives a well-below-average of $9.87 in per capita funding and $3.16 in per capita public funding. 

Cause and Effect

So that’s it then. Just pump lots of money into independent public broadcasting and everything will be fixed.

But wait ….

Is US Democracy flawed and facing challenges due to the lack of decent well-funded broadcasters … or … is the lack of funding for public broadcasters down US Democracy being flawed?

The study does demonstrate a correlation between strong robust democracies and decent public broadcasters. What it does not do is to establish if it is a causal relationship.

The truth is, I suspect not a simple easy answer, it never really is. Dumping tons of money into public broadcasters would not build bridges. Rather, the lack of public media funding is probably just a symptom and not a root cause.

Having said that, I will also say this. The output created by PBS and NPR is quality and well-respected by the vast majority. Ramping up their funding for more of the same would be very much on my wish list.

Study Implications?

The study lays it out as follows …

These findings shed light on ongoing debates about the growing journalism crisis. With for-profit journalism around the world facing varying degrees of economic distress— especially as commercial journalism’s advertising revenue model has collapsed and digital subscriptions largely fail to compensate for resultant losses—one increasingly common proposal to address this market failure is to expand public-funded media. Given concerns about state funding of media, especially in the U.S., it is noteworthy that our data show that countries with strong public media systems —measured in terms of funding levels, audience shares, and regulatory and funding structures—are far from despotic.

Indeed, our research shows that countries near the top of EIU’s Democracy Index have well-funded public media with substantial footprints in their national media systems, and these public media tend to meet minimal criteria for regulatory and funding frameworks that assure autonomy and stable financial support. Even as revenues for commercial media organizations dropped precipitously over the past two decades, countries with robust public media systems maintained strong positions in EIU’s rankings. However, the U.S. dropped from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy” in 2016 (EIU 2020b) and has continued to decline (score of 8.22 in 2006 and 7.96 in 2019). Such patterns, if broadly understood, may compel American citizens—and especially policymakers—to reexamine commonly held assumptions about the relationships between media subsidies and democracy.

Our findings suggest that seeking “public options” to address commercial journalism’s economic crisis also stands to improve the health of democracies around the globe. In particular, well-funded and institutionally secure public media can enhance public engagement with political processes, a crucial dimension of any “virtuous circle” relationship between public media and their democracies

There is no avoiding the observation that things need to change. When the time comes for decisions to be made, then we would be wise to ensure that such decisions are empirically based, and not simply knee-jerk reactions that pander to the mob.

Questions for Commenters

  • Are you a fan of PBS and/or NPR?
  • Would you like to see their funding greatly increased?
  • Do you think doing so would make things a bit better by giving a far wider audience truly independent News?

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