A new study by two researchers at the Steinhardt School examining the role of public media in democracies across the globe offers U.S. policy-makers new models for how government can fund media in a way that is free of political interference.
The report, by Rodney Benson, associate professor of media, culture, and communication, and Matthew Powers, a doctoral candidate, offers profiles of 14 democracies across the globe—from Australia to Norway to Canada to Australia—that currently fund public media at higher levels than in the U.S. and offer a richer variety of content than their commercial peers.
Public media in America are weathering newattacks on their funding and independence, and at the same time they are being asked to fill the widening news and information gap left by the shifting communications landscape. At the heart of these attacks is a question: Can government play a positive role in helping promote quality, independent journalism?
“There seems to exist an historical amnesia in this country around government involvement in media,” said Benson. “The government has always influenced media, from early newspaper subsidies to handing out broadcast licenses and subsidizing broadband. The question is not if, but how, government should be involved.”
Benson and Powers analyze the ways that other democratic countries fund and protect the autonomy of their public media, which are legally protected from partisan political interference. As a result, public media—television, radio, newspapers, and online news—often provide more and higher quality public affairs coverage, a wider range of viewpoints, and are even more critical of government than their commercial media counterparts. Viewership of public media is higher in western Europe than in the U.S., and as a result, public knowledge about government and international affairs is substantially higher.
Public media in the U.S. are consistently rated among the most trusted media sources in public opinion surveys. Yet the American public media system is among the poorest in the world: per capita public funding of PBS and NPR is less than $4, compared to the $30 to $130 per capita invested by countries like Germany, Canada, Sweden, and Great Britain.
The report, “Public Media and Political Independence: Lessons for the Future of Journalism from Around the World,” was supported by grants from Free Press and the Foundation to Promote Open Society.
(Photo, left to right: Rodney Benson, Matthew Powers)