“Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”

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Nowadays there is a big debate about the importance of news and their role in modern societies. Internet and social media revolutionized the way we receive and perceive the news; in addition, they permitted the mass diffusion of information, exposing humans to an unprecedented amount of news in a global scale, bringing forward the question: how much of what we hear and see is valid?  

News media has the potential to shape public opinion, to transform social behavior and to affect processes such as decision making to the members of society. In other words, media have substituted human experience, or at least many of its aspects. Basically, we shape our perceptions, beliefs, and values not based on our experience but based on what we see, hear and read on mass media. A very nice example is the correlation of crime with minorities, an identification process which is produced by media and imprinted on human perception[1]. In addition, considering the fact that we, as citizens and members of our given societies, are being perceived by the various institutions as voters, consumers, investors, (etc) then we can assume the importance of this, not so innocent relationship between media news and people.

One of the central issues that shape the identity of the research on news media is ownership and its effect on news reliability. Simeon Djankov, Tatiana Nenova and Caralee Macliesch from the World Bank, along with Andrei Shleifer from Harvard University in their thorough study “Who owns the media” (2003) examined the basic ownership models that prevail in 97 countries from all 5 continents. The results showed that when it comes to the “game” of media ownership, two are the major “players”, private enterprises and governments. Based on the research, private enterprises seem to own almost 57% of the newspapers and 34% of television while the state controls an average of 29% and 60% of newspapers and television respectively. The model of state ownership exists mostly in countries with weak economies and poor political institutions: Africa, Middle East, and North Africa. In contrast, in the Western World, the democratization of the institutions and the function of capitalist markets permitted the prevalence of private ownership. Families own the media outlets. In some cases, they have been doing it for decades.

“The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power; because they control the minds of the masses.”(Malcolm X)

Within this frame, one could ask what the impact is on news reliability when the top five daily newspapers in Western Europe are controlled by private enterprises. But the study emphasizes the direct impact of state monopoly in the field of media outlets. The results are not encouraging: restriction of journalistic independence and lack of transparency, censorship, and imprisonment of journalists, limited flow of public information, and the list goes on. Of course, one should not underestimate further extensions such as corruption, restriction of civil rights, etc.

Young (2016) in a very interesting study identified the basic criteria by which English-American societies perceive the “reliability” of news. So, the basic elements that compose the validity of what we will read on a newspaper or hear on television are: a) accuracy, b) balance, c) completeness, d) transparency. Accuracy refers to the correctness of the facts presented and the use of valid (i.e. experts) sources and/or data. Balance equals to the degree by which an article or a commentary provides contradictory points of view and to the degree by which the audience identifies its self with the reflecting ideas. Completeness is perceived as the provision of in-depth articles that are up to date. Last, but not least, transparency has to do with how much trust we put to the journalists and their methods by which they collect and present the news.

Since we identified the basic criteria that shape the concept of news reliability we will try to examine how much they apply to the model of state ownership based on the aforementioned impact of news media outlets. Considering the fact that governments tend to censor news, especially those that are diffused by the internet[2] we can assume that there is very small possibility for the criteria of accuracy to be fulfilled. The restriction of journalistic independence means that journalists have no freedom on controlling the content of news; when governments impose the presentation of news in order to support their political goals then we can erase from the equation the criteria of balance too. So, we are left with completeness and transparency. One can support that the absolute control of news by governments does not necessary means the use of news that is “out of date”. But we can all agree that imprisonment of journalists and limited flow of public information certainly do not advocate for the criteria of transparency.  

If state ownership has, to a certain extent, negative consequences on news reliability this means that private ownership of news media outlets in the Western world promote validity? It is supported that the promotion of political goals is a coin with two sides; on one side there is the state, on the other private organizations. Politics and capital are interconnected and news media outlets offer the space for this successful interconnection. For example, during the major privatization process of media in Slovakia during the 1990’s the majority of the owners held strong bonds with the ruling party (Hrvatin & Petković, n.d.). Apparently, news media are means for the exploitation of power. The interrelation of media, politics and economic capital raises important questions about the effect on news reliability.

In the USA, one basic notion that characterizes the link between privatization and news is the fact that “Americans trust in the press has been declining with occasional interruptions, for roughly two decades”. A recent study showed that 52% of the Americans share “some confidence” and 41% state that they “hardly” have any confidence in the press. Another research in September 2015 reported that almost 60% of the correspondents had “either not very much or none at all” trust in the mass media.  Certainly, this does not reflect a positive progress.

Another research (Table 1) which was held and provided by Gallup analytics[3] shows that the trust and confidence (in the United States) of the citizens have declined seriously during the last years.

Table 1: Trust and confidence in news media (TV, newspapers, radio)

Great deal Fair amount Not very much None at all No opinion
% % % % %
2017 Sep 6-10 13 28 29 29 1
2016 Sep 7-11 8 24 41 27 *
2015 Sep 9-13 7 33 36 24 *
2014 Sep 4-7 10 30 36 24 *
2013 Sep 5-8 11 33 33 22 1
2012 Sep 6-9 8 32 39 21 1
2011 Sep 8-11 11 33 36 19 1
2010 Sep 13-16 12 31 36 21 *
2009 Aug 31-Sep 2 10 35 37 18 1
2008 Sep 8-11 9 34 35 21 1
2007 Sep 14-16 9 38 35 17 *
2005 Sep 12-15 13 37 37 12 1
2004 Sep 13-15 9 35 39 16 1
2003 Sep 8-10 14 40 35 11 *
2002 Sep 5-8 10 44 35 11 *
2001 Sep 7-10 12 41 33 14 *
2000 Jul 6-9 12 39 37 12 *
1999 Feb 4-8 11 44 34 11 *
1998 Dec 28-29 11 44 35 9 1
1997 May 30-Jun 1 10 43 31 15 1
1976 Jun 18 54 22 4 2
1974 Apr 21 48 21 8 2
1972 May 18 50 24 6 2
* Less than 0.5%

As Turow (2014) points out “media are platforms or vehicles that industries have developed for the purpose of creating and sending messages”. Next to “industries” we can add “governments” as well. Understanding the nature by which news is being produced and distributed equals to shaping a constant critical thinking to what we hear, see and read; it demands an intellectual and spiritual vigilance; it requires from the individual to turn from a passive receiver to an active intermediary. Can this be achieved by not leading to an endless skepticism?

 

[1] In 1995, a research conducted by Barlow et al over a five-year period on Time magazine showed that over the 74% of news reports on crime concerned minorities, while official data reported exactly the opposite; the majority of crimes were conducted by white people.

[2] We consider that any discussion on reliability of news media should include the role of the internet and social media since they seem to gain more and more “ground” in the field of news production and circulation.

[3] http://news.gallup.com/poll/1663/media-use-evaluation.aspx

References

Dohnanyi, J. Möller, C. (2003), The impact of media concentration on professional journalism, Vienna: Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)

Gallup, “Media Use and Evaluation” available at:

http://news.gallup.com/poll/1663/media-use-evaluation.aspx

Hrvatin, S.B. & Petković, B. (2014), “Regional Overview” in Media Ownership and its impact on media independence and pluralism, ed. Petković, B. Ljubljana: Peace Institute

Houston, J.F. Lin, M. Ma. Y. (2010), “Media ownership, concentration, and corruption in bank lending”

Jarell, M.L. (2007), Environmental crime and the media. News coverage of petroleum refining industry violations, New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC

Turow, J. (2014), Media today: Mass communication in a converging world, New York and London: Routledge

Young, E. (2016), A new understanding: What makes people trust and rely on news, The Media Insight Project, American Press Institute

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Yiorgos Touma

Yiorgos Touma

I write more than I read, and read less than I wander. Movement is the essence of life. Movement of ideas is the essence of evolvement
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