Media and Democracy
At the essence of democracy is that everyone’s voice can be heard and everyone can hear other people’s voice. Ideally the media should be able to represent voices of all sides, but the concentration of media ownership makes it unlikely to happen. It could help promote democracy but could also weaken it if not used properly. The media is very often abused by interest groups to strengthen their power, especially by politicians. Entman in his research concludes:
…when news clearly slants, those officials favored by the slant become more powerful, freer to do what they want without the anticipation that voters might punish them. And those who lose the framing contest become weaker, less free to do (or say) what they want. (2007)
The media is more likely to facilitate democracy when they are in a pluralistic environment, because the interest groups can not bribe or manipulate the whole media industry when the market is shared by many equally competitive media companies. (Corneo, 2006) When the audience has access to media of diverse views, they are able to have a clearer understanding of the news and make sounder judgements.
Mass media reflects the interests of its target audience, because without the audience it can not survive. Nevertheless, mass media can not act as an absolute agent of democracy because “choice of what we see, hear and read in the mass media resides in the hands of a small number of companies.” (Williams, 2003) The products of mass media are largely decided by the management of these dominant companies, and to a lesser extent, by the content producers, e.g. editors, journalists, and reporters. Within these media giants, content production is also influenced by the social contexts and financial pressure. In authoritarian countries, the media is under complete control of the authority. As a result, objective media is not always possible.
The final products of mass media are a result of the interplay among many factors, including audience and producers. Sometimes the producers and audience may have the same goal, or they may sway each other. Therefore the media providers do not always have complete control over their production. Instead, their control is “within the constraints of the general political, economic and cultural environment” (ibid.) in which they operate.
The rapid development of media technologies means a higher proportion of people have access to mass media. The Internet stands out as the most influential new media. It differs from traditional mass media in that its content publication is relatively cheap, and the content has wider reach than traditional media once it is online. As a result, more people can publish content by means of the Internet, contributing to the mass media democracy.
While the Internet may facilitate some democratic forms of use, its democracy is restricted by some media giants just like in traditional media. Large Internet companies are able to shape the ecosystem of the Internet through their powerful marketing or innovative technologies. “The emergence of ‘patent-encumbered standards’ would certainly stifle the ease with which democratic forms of use may be developed.” (Salter, 2004) By contrast, the Internet presence of public sectors is mostly determined by government policies. Therefore, the Internet democracy will be lost unless “more people of influence get involved in using and developing the Internet, establishing and defending public spaces and public forms of use.” (ibid.) To administer new media such as the Internet, current laws need to be revised. Most laws are ill-suited for new media because its nature is very different from traditional media.
A counterforce of media control is the capability of interaction that new media provides. The new media forms “allow increased possibilities for participation in the construction of narratives.” (Cover, 2004) The audience is no longer passive receivers of information, but also contributors to the media content. Again, the Internet is a good example of interactive media. Not only does it provide multimedia content, it makes interaction between the producer and audience easy. Commercial websites that have a discussion board tells people that they are trustworthy and honest, because the customers can post complaints on the discussion board. In the presence of this kind of interactive technology, online stores that do not have an interactive section will be questioned of its business transparency. Similarly, state owned websites could also offer online forums for open discussion. Criticisms to governments will be nearly impossible to monitor when interactive media is available.
In traditional mass media, similar situations of media democracy can be observed. Media companies could possess bigger share of the market through horizontal or vertical integration (Branston & Stafford, 2006) and thus increase their control over media production. Nonetheless, no matter how powerful the media companies are, they can not survive without constantly adjusting productions according to the interests of their audience. For example, “there is a growing recognition of the importance of analytic/propositional … modes of communication,” (Cottle & Rai, 2007) so news providers may now make multiple stories out of a major event, so as to provide the audience in-depth analyses and background information. In other words, the preferred news stories of the influential people could receive more coverage. State owned media may seemed less burdened by commercialism, but they are actually facing the same challenges as private companies do; state owned media will disappear if it has no audience, even if it has money.
Despite the many barriers on media operation, the media is historically regarded as an agent of democracy because of its power to educate the public. However, this same power of education, or manipulating the public opinion, is sometimes used by governments to spread their propaganda, (Herman & Chomsky, 2002) thus undermines the media’s function as an agent of democracy. Furthermore, private media companies are often under the influence of government propaganda as well because they need to follow the government’s regulations too.
The government’s propaganda may interfere with media democracy by manoeuvring news report. For example, in a newspaper, a sentence may be written in middle or passive voice instead of active voice to eliminate the actor who would otherwise be held responsible for a crime. (Lukin, Butt, & Matthiessen, 2004) This kind of manoeuvring usually goes unnoticed but does have an impact on careless audience. The news report may also be blatantly partial, portraying an event in a way that supports the government’s policy. “The U.S. coverage of the Iraq War was an example of extreme patriotism where the media functioned as fine-tuned government propaganda machines.” (Jackson & Stanfield, 2004)
The government does not always need to actively engage in media production in order to promote its policy. Since the government is a credible source for most journalists, the government can always provide information for the press and the press is happy to accept the information at no cost. Consequently a symbiotic relationship between the press and the government develops. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002) By using government sources, the media providers are able to save much money, but inevitably sacrifice the objectivity of news report.
Even though the mass media is always subject to the influence of some interest groups, it will return to equilibrium most of the time. When the audience knows that an outlet of media is unreliable the demand for that outlet will decrease. “As a consequence, a sufficiently patient journalist may have an incentive to build a reputation for being honest.” (Corneo, 2006) Although some audience are attracted by the media that agrees with their opinions, the media, in the long run, can establish its reputation as a trustworthy source by providing unbiased information.
Even though the audience can rationally recognise the possibilities of incorrect or one-sided information from the media, they are still misled by the media because verification of the information is tedious and not always possible. It seems that for media to act as an agent to democracy, the government needs to ensure the media providers operate under minimum governmental interference and regulations. However, “a de-regulated marketplace does little to redress inequalities in citizen participation in and access to mass media.” (Pallos, 2000)
Whether deregulation improves healthy media development is highly debated. Advocates of media deregulation think the governments should allow free competitions among the media players. Opponents of media deregulation assert that the government should monitor the media access for diverse voices; if the government does not impose some regulations, media monopoly will eventually undermine democracy. (Shelanski, 2006) Therefore, to maximise media’s potential of facilitating democracy without sacrificing its freedom, a great deal of careful governmental planning is essential.
Branston, G., & Stafford, R. (2006). Industries. In The Media Student’s Book (pp. p.207-242). New York: Routledge.
Corneo, G. (2006). Media Capture in a Democracy: the Role of Wealth Concentration. The Journal of Public Economics, 90(1-2), p.37-58.
Cottle, S., & Rai, M. (2007). Australian TV News Revisited: News Ecology and Communicative Frames. Media International Australia Incorporating Culture & Policy, 2007(122), p.43-58.
Cover, R. (2004). New media theory: electronic games, democracy and reconfiguring the author-audience relationship. Social Semiotics, 14(2), p.173-191.
Entman, R. M. (2007). Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power. Journal of communication, 57(1), p.163-173.
Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon.
Jackson, P. T., & Stanfield, J. R. (2004). The Role of the Press in a Democracy: Heterodox Economics and the Propaganda Model. Journal of Economic Issues, 38(2), p.475-482.
Lukin, A., Butt, D., & Matthiessen, C. (2004). Reporting War: Grammar as ‘covert operation’. Pacific Journalism Review, 10(1), p.58-74.
Pallos, T. (2000). The effect of the mass media on the practice of Australian democracy. Polemic (special edition), 9(1), p.42-51.
Salter, L. (2004). Structure and Forms of Use: A Contribution to Understanding the ‘effects’ of the Internet on Deliberative Democracy. Information, Communication & Society, 7(2), p.185-206.
Shelanski, H. A. (2006). Antitrust Law as Mass Media Regulation: Can Merger Standards Protect the Public Interest? California Law Review, 94(2), p.371-421.
Williams, K. (2003). The Censorship of Money: Theories of Media Ownership and Control. In Understanding Media Theory (pp. p.73-95). New York: Hodder Arnold.
by J.C., Dept. of English, Sydney Uni.