There is no immediate or absolute relationship between the media and democracy in the sense that, without media, there could be no democracy. Similarly, it does not follow that with the (modern) media comes democracy. Autocracies exist wherein the media supports a political system, and likewise, democracies exist wherein the media works to undermine a political system. However, most often the media and democracy are viewed as supporting each other. This connection is the product of a long historical development, one peculiar to European (and North American) societies, involving not only institutions and practices directly linked to the media-based and democratic processes, but numerous other institutions (such as education, the political system, religion, etc.) as well. The media are not the only institutions that promote (or do not promote) democratic legitimacy. Other major institutions of such influence include education, religion, public authority, cultural institutions, and political systems, among others. From a wider societal viewpoint, the role of the media is rather reduced in influence. If, for example, an education system is based on ethnic or other forms of segregation, or if there is widespread religious intolerance, or if public authority suffers from corruption, it is obvious that the media has only so many resources to encourage systemic legitimacy. The fundamental interrelatedness of different social institutions makes it difficult, or even impossible, to study the media as a phenomenon isolated from the rest of society. For this reason, we should be careful when making comparisons between the media in different countries, even the media outlets within liberal democracies. In addition, there is no consensus as to the right balance of media and other social institutions in a democracy. Throughout the history of democracy, the relations between institutions (the political system, economy, media, and civil society) have undergone renegotiations and adjustments during times of crisis. Over the past few decades, this relationship appears to have reached a new crisis, one that continues to this day and still lacks a clear solution. In many countries, civil society–based media reform movements have been established with clear goals to further democratize media systems. One of the key arguments of these movements has centered on the contradiction between the constitutional obligations of democratic countries and the reality that, in practice, these rights do not apply equally to all. There remain major differences today between different social groups in terms of open access to and the unrestricted availability of information, the ability to utilize information according to one’s needs, having a voice represented by decision-makers, and respect for privacy and personal integrity.
Philip M. Napoli and Sarah Stonbely
The role of government policy in journalism can vary substantially across nations; as in 21st century the primary policy issues surrounding journalism have evolved as technological changes have dramatically configured—and in some cases threatened—the position of traditional journalistic institutions and given rise to new journalistic forms and organizations. In nations such as the United States, where the commercial model of journalism production has long predominated, we have seen a pronounced expansion in recent years beyond a policy focus on how to maintain sufficient competition and diversity among the organizations that produce journalism (i.e., ownership regulation) to also include consideration of possible policy approaches to preserving and protecting traditional journalism organizations in the face of a much more challenging economic environment. Thus, policymakers have considered options such as legislation allowing commercial newspapers to convert to nonprofit status, as well as engaging in more rigorous governmental assessment of the functioning of local journalism ecosystems and the ways in which news consumers’ critical information needs are being met. In this latter case, the question of what, if any, policy responses may emerge from such investigations has remained unclear and a source of significant controversy. In nations with a stronger tradition of non-commercial, publicly supported journalism (the focus here is primarily on western Europe), key 21st-century policy issues have included media freedom and pluralism, with particular emphases and mechanisms for protecting journalists and for ensuring ownership transparency and diversity. There have also been comprehensive reassessments of the structure and functioning of public service media in order to ensure that these institutions are effectively evolving in response to the changing media environment in ways that maximize their ability to serve media users’ information needs. Issues of journalism ethics and performance have found their way into the policy agenda as well. This has most notably been the case in the United Kingdom, where revelations of illegal mobile phone hacking by British tabloid journalists led to a formal government inquiry (the Leveson Inquiry) and recommendations for the creation of a new, independent governance structure with significant sanctioning and dispute arbitration authority. An important concern that is only now beginning to emerge (particularly in Europe), one that may ultimately take form as a dominant journalism policy issue, involves the question of the increasingly influential role that digital intermediaries (social media platforms, search engines, mobile applications) play in the process via which journalism reaches news consumers. Here, the emerging concern is whether some more formal and authoritative governance structures are necessary to ensure that these intermediaries have positive rather than negative effects on the flow of news and information within communities.
European communications policy is defined as European level coordination of national policies by institutions such as the European Union (EU), Council of Europe (CoE), European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and European Audiovisual Observatory (EAO). The focus in this article is on European Union initiatives that are, in general, directly binding on Member States. They comprise of policies governing cross-border broadcasting (television and radio), telecommunications relating to media, content distribution (networks and subsidies), public service definitions, advertising and quotas. The focus is on current policies, with historical accounts of how they came into being. It draws on primary source material and provides secondary reading suggestions under the section Further Reading. A distinction is made between hard law, which is directly binding, and soft policy coordination, which takes place between the European Union institutions and national regulatory authorities (NRAs). The policy areas under discussion are: cross-border broadcasting (television and radio), telecommunications relating to media, distribution (networks and subsidies), public service definitions, advertising and quotas. European Union initiatives are comprised of four main components: legislation (Directives, Regulations, and Decisions), soft governance (self-regulation and other forms of European level coordination), competition law and distributive policies (the MEDIA programme and Creative Europe). Directives, regulations, decisions and competition case rulings are directly binding on member states. Soft policy coordination takes place between the European institutions and national regulatory authorities (NRAs). It is used primarily to coordinate standard-setting between NRAs and establish common EU positions on international platforms. It has also been instrumental in setting benchmarking exercises and the exchange of best practice in areas where there is no EU legal basis for legislation such as media transparency, freedom, pluralism and independence.
Questions of media trust and credibility are widely discussed; numerous studies over the past 30 years show a decline in trust in media as well as institutions and experts. The subject has been discussed—and researched—since the period between World Wars I and II and is often returned to as new forms of technology and news consumption are developed. However, trust levels, and what people trust, differ in different countries. Part of the reason that trust in the media has received such extensive attention is the widespread view shared by communications scholars and media development practitioners that a well-functioning media is essential to democracy. But the solutions discussion is further complicated because the academic research on media trust—before and since the advent of online media—is fragmented, contradictory, and inconclusive. Further, it is not clear to what extent digital technology –and the loss of traditional signals of credibility—has confused audiences and damaged trust in media and to what extent trust in media is related to worries about globalization, job losses, and economic inequality. Nor is it clear whether trust in one journalist or outlet can be generalized. This makes it difficult to know how to rebuild trust in the media, and although there are many efforts to do so, it is not clear which will work—or whether any will.
Privacy rights are controversial in communication processes and entail varying levels of disclosure of sensitive personal information. What constitutes such personal information and how it should be accessed and used by various actors in a particular communicative exchange tends to be dependent on the situation at hand. And yet, many would argue that a baseline level of privacy should be expected by individuals as part of maintaining human integrity and personal control over information disclosure. Different frameworks exist for thinking about privacy as a right, and these frameworks further suggest different mechanisms for the control of information and the protection of privacy rights in changing communication environments. For example, the main shift in communication processes from the pre-Internet era to a networked world has brought with it renewed debates over the regulation of privacy rights. How would privacy rights be evoked in the face of rapidly changing technologies for networked surveillance, biometric identification, and geolocation? And moreover, how would these rights be applied differently to distinct populations based on class, nationality, race, gender, and age? These questions form the core of what is at stake in conceptions of privacy rights in contemporary communication.
Digital technologies are frequently said to have converged. This claim may be made with respect to the technologies themselves or to restructuring of the media industry over time. Innovations that are associated with digitalization (representing analogue signals by binary digits) often emerge in ways that cross the boundaries of earlier industries. When this occurs, technologies may be configured in new ways and the knowledge that supports the development of services and applications becomes complex. In the media industries, the convergence phenomenon has been very rapid, and empirical evidence suggests that the (de)convergence of technologies and industries also needs to be taken into account to understand change in this area. There is a very large literature that seeks to explain why convergence and (de)convergence phenomena occur. Some of this literature looks for economic and market-based explanations on the supply side of the industry, whereas other approaches explore the cultural, social, and political demand side factors that are important in shaping innovation in the digital media sector and the often unexpected pathways that it takes. Developments in digital media are crucially important because they are becoming a cornerstone of contemporary information societies. The benefits of digital media are often heralded in terms of improved productivity, opportunities to construct multiple identities through social media, new connections between close and distant others, and a new foundation for democracy and political mobilization. The risks associated with these technologies are equally of concern in part because the spread of digital media gives rise to major challenges. Policymakers are tasked with governing these technologies and issues of privacy protection, surveillance, and commercial security as well as ensuring that the skills base is appropriate to the digital media ecology need to be addressed. The complexity of the converged landscape makes it difficult to provide straightforward answers to policy problems. Policy responses also need to be compatible with the cultural, social, political, and economic environments in different countries and regions of the world. This means that these developments must be examined from a variety of disciplinary perspectives and need to be understood in their historical context so as take both continuities and discontinuities in the media industry landscape into account.
Mart Ots and Robert G. Picard
Due to its function as a watchdog or fourth estate in democratic societies and a variety of commercial challenges, policy-makers have undertaken initiatives to support the production and distribution of news. Press subsidies are one such policy initiative that particularly aims to provide support to private news producers. Paid as direct cash handouts or indirect reduced taxes and fees, they exist in some form in almost every country in the world. Subsidies are not uncontroversial, their effectiveness is unclear, and their magnitude, designs, and areas of application, differ across nations and their unique economic, cultural, and political contexts. After periods of declining political and public interest in media subsidies, the recent economic crisis of journalism, and the rising influence of various forms of click-bait, fake, native, or biased news on social media platforms, has brought state support of original journalism back on the agenda.