Public media can improve our ‘flawed’ democracy

A new study finds that countries with well-funded public media have healthier democracies, and explains why investment in U.S. public media is an investment in the future of journalism and democracy alike.

Thousands of newspapers across the U.S. have shuttered or downsized in recent years, leaving many communities without—or with highly diminished—local news outlets. The collapse of local journalism and rise of “news deserts,” along with the spread of disinformation and misinformation, all point to a news industry in crisis.

Radio microphone and a soundboard with an ON AIR sign.
Image: Fringer Cat via Unsplash

As commercial news continues experiencing structural and financial issues, media scholar Victor Pickard, the C. Edwin Baker Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy and Co-Director of the Media, Inequality & Change Center at the Annenberg School for Communication, advocates for a promising alternative: increased government investment in nonprofit and public media.

Scholarship by Pickard and others finds that public media has myriad social benefits, including more diverse news coverage, increased public knowledge about politics and public affairs, and lower levels of extremist views. Building on this, a new study co-authored by Pickard and Timothy Neff, reveals that countries with independent and well-funded public broadcasting systems also consistently have stronger democracies.

The study, “Funding Democracy: Public Media and Democratic Health in 33 Countries”, shows that while other democracies have recognized the value of public media systems, America is a major outlier. Despite having the world’s largest gross domestic product, America spends a comparatively miniscule fraction—less than half of a percent—on public media funding.

“According to The Economist’s Democracy Index, the U.S. is now considered to be a ‘flawed democracy.’ In terms of its public media funding, it is almost literally off the chart for how little it allocates towards its public media compared to other democracies around the planet,” says Pickard.

“While our research specifically shows the correlation between strong public media systems and strong democracies, there is a growing body of research that suggests substantial social benefits from strong public media systems, including well-informed political cultures, high levels of support for democratic processes, and increased levels of civic engagement.”

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.