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Measuring and Protecting Media Plurality in the Digital Age: A Political Economy Approach

Prat, Andrea

At least since Thomas Jefferson, we understand that democracy requires a well-functioning media industry. Reporting keeps citizens informed, so they can keep government accountable and make informed electoral decisions. A well-functioning media industry is a pluralistic and independent one: different sources compete with each other to bring the truth to citizens. However, things can go wrong: powerful political or economic forces can try to “capture the media” and manipulate public opinion in order to subvert democracy. This essay will report plenty of anecdotal and systematic evidence for this type of phenomenon.

To avoid the threat of media capture, democracies around the world have put in place a number of safeguards. One is free press legislation, which protects the media against direct government interference. However, there is another source of danger. If the media industry becomes highly concentrated, powerful media owners could attempt to manipulate public opinion. This phenomenon too has been understood since the era of media mogul Randolph Hearst, who would later serve as one of the inspirations for the titular character in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. To counter the risks associated with concentration, in the post-World War II period most Western democracies put in place media ownership limits. No single media owner could acquire the type of power Charles Foster Kane has in Citizen Kane because no single entity would be allowed to accumulate stakes in so many media outlets.

However, the safeguards of the post-war period were not designed for the Facebook era. They were meant to limit concentration on the media platforms that existed then: newspapers, radio, and network television. The objective of this essay is to discuss whether and how media plurality rules can be adapted to the digital age.

This important and complex issue can be explored from many angles. This note will take a political economy approach. The political economy of mass media is an interdisciplinary effort of experts in economics and political science based on the idea that some phenomena are best understood combining the methodologies of the two disciplines. This mostly empirical field helps us answer interdisciplinary questions that guide the study of media capture: Is reporting biased? Does biased reporting affect voting outcomes? Is media captured by political and economic interests? Does better reporting reduce corruption?

This essay is organized as follows. In Section 1, I will explore the link between media concentration and media capture, and why we need to protect media plurality. The available empirical evidence highlights the link between media capture and media concentration as well as the risks a country faces when its media are not independent. In Section 2, I will argue that existing media ownership restrictions are toothless and obsolete because they apply to traditional platforms only. The problem is those rules are platform-centric: they attempt to regulate platforms – television, radio, newspapers, etc. – one by one, an impossible task in a world where media platforms are proliferating and the borders between them are blurring. In Section 3, I set forth the main argument of this note: In order to create effective media plurality defenses for the digital age, we must first find a platform-neutral way to define and measure media concentration. I discuss the notion of attention shares and I apply it to an example. Section 4 is empirical. It reports recent attention share information from the United States and 35 other countries. The data identifies the most powerful media owners in every country, highlighting the continued importance of broadcasting companies and the rise of Facebook. It also highlights the presence of information inequality patterns: the poor and the less educated have a more concentrated set of information sources, which puts them at a higher risk of manipulation. Section 5 shows how the attention share approach can be used to evaluate media ownership, and in particular to decide whether a specific media merger should be blocked. The analysis is carried out in parallel by using the numerical fictional example from Section 2 as well as alongside a recent application of the attention share approach to a 2017 merger review of the proposed acquisition of Sky by 21st Century Fox in the U.K. In Section 6, I conclude by reviewing both the benefits and the limits of an attention share approach.

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