There is little doubt that mass media play an important role in representative democracy. Media (both traditional and post-broadcast) are one of our principal sources of information about the world, about public policy and about government. Mass media can play a critical role in democratic accountability. They can (help to) provide the information that we need to be effective democratic citizens.
These statements aren’t especially contentious, of course — most of them have been around since long before modern mass media. What are contentious are the conditions under which popular media are more likely to achieve these goals. And foremost among the arguments surrounding the potential for media to help or hinder representative democratic citizenship is the issue of public versus private broadcasting.
The need for public broadcasting springs from concerns about what market forces might do to media content. Driven by the need for both sales/viewership and advertising, private media will focus on whatever sells — they will tend towards stories that are flashy, salacious and entertaining. Public service broadcasting (PSB), in contrast, will be more immune to market forces. PSB will be able to provide the kind of information that publics need to assess governments and make better-informed political decisions.
Whether this is actually the case is another matter. In short, we do not really know whether public service broadcasting produces better-informed citizens. This issue is of particular relevance in a period when PSBs are under increasingly serious budgetary constraints. The BBC has faced large cuts in funding. So has the Canadian CBC. Even Scandinavian systems are experiencing some funding pressures. And Mitt Romney considered firing Big Bird. We should be asking ourselves, particularly in this period of fiscal constraint, whether investing in public service broadcasting is an important part of governments’ commitment to helping citizens be better informed about politics and policy.
This was one of the questions motivating research conducted by a group of political scientists and communications researchers recently published in the British Journal of Political Science. We are grateful for the attention that this work has already received on the Monkey Cage — a post from John Sides, and some additional commentary and research from Patrick O’Mahen. I hope to add to that discussion here.
Our research, in short, combined a content analysis of major media outlets (see some results here) with an online survey focusing on media use and political knowledge. That survey is the source of our information, presented in the BJPolS, on whether PSB viewership is associated with higher levels of hard and soft current affairs knowledge across six very different media systems: Canada, Italy, Japan, Norway, the UK and South Korea.
Results suggest that viewing public rather than (or at least in addition to) private broadcasting is associated with higher levels of news knowledge. We have to take into account self-selection, of course — it is difficult to know whether public broadcasting increases knowledge, or whether those with higher levels of political knowledge choose to watch public broadcasting. The causal arrow likely runs in both directions. But to the extent that we are able to identify an independent effect of media on knowledge (using propensity score matching), it appears as though public broadcasting increases knowledge.
Or, at least, public broadcasting can increase knowledge. Our data point to a clear knowledge gap between those who watch public vs. private broadcasting in the UK, and in Norway as well. Differences in other countries are somewhat smaller. Japan and Canada show small but significant gaps between public and private television viewers, while Korea shows no gap, and Italians appear to benefit (knowledge-wise, at least) from private rather than public broadcasting. (The attached figure shows the estimated knowledge gaps for each country, where the “gap” is estimated knowledge for those who watch primarily public broadcasting minus estimated knowledge for those who watch primarily private broadcasting. Full details on the knowledge scale is available in the paper.)
What accounts for this cross-national variation? Not all public service broadcasters operate with the same advantages and constraints, of course. There are (at least) two variables that seem to be particularly important. First, for a public broadcaster to be immune from market forces, they have to receive the bulk of their funding from public sources. This is not the case for many PSBs. The share of funding that PSBs receive from public funds rather than advertising varies widely — and where public funding decreases, so too do the differences between public and private broadcasters. The independence of public broadcasters from governments also differs from one country to the next. Some public broadcasters are able to receive a good degree of their funding from government, with very few strings attached. Others receive public funds, but these come with government interventions (on executive appointments and dismissals, for instance). In sum, the benefits of public over private broadcasting seem greatest when public broadcasters are relatively immune from both (a) market pressures, and (b) political interventions.
Individual-level differences in knowledge thus speak to the potential importance of PSB, while cross-national differences in the impact of PSB illustrate the importance (or the moderating impact) of the structure of public broadcasting. Both findings have important implications for current debates about the value of public broadcasting. In particular, they suggest that public broadcasting can make a difference, but that partial commitments won’t suffice. The vast majority of PSB funding must be public; and PSBs must be almost entirely free of government intervention. Anything less, and PSB funding may just be a waste — at least if the goal is to help provide the information that citizens need to make informed political judgements.