Americans view freedom of the press, enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Congress, as essential to the functioning of its democracy. For some people, the notion of government-funded media seems antithetical to that principle.
Now, however, a study published last December in the International Journal of Press/Politics by two University of Pennsylvania professors calls that notion into question. Timothy Neff and Victor Pickard looked at the state of democracy and at various media funding mechanisms across 33 countries, including the U.S. They found that “high levels of secure funding for public media systems and strong structural protections for the political and economic independence of those systems are consistently and positively correlated with healthy democracies.”
In other words, countries with independent and publicly well-funded national broadcasting systems had consistently stronger democracies according to the Neff and Pickens study. It turns out that the U.S. scores badly both in terms of the quality of its democracy and how much it spends on public media. According to The Economist’s Democracy Index, the U.S. is now considered a “flawed democracy.” At the same time, the U.S. spends .002 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on public media, according to a recent report from the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which translates to just $1.40 per capita. That compares unfavorably to countries like the U.K., Norway, and Sweden, which all spend around $100 per capita or more on public media and all have higher ratings than the U.S. on the Democracy Index. The Annenberg Center report thus quotes Professor Pickard as stating that “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.”
Journalism in Crisis
What journalism we do have in the U.S. appears to be in crisis. As Timothy Karr notes in his article “The Future of Local News Is Noncommercial” that appeared in the March 18, 2022 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, we have witnessed a precipitous decline in local news coverage in the U.S. during the 21st Century. “Between 2008 and 2020,” Kerr writes, “more than 1,000 newspapers ceased printing, and the number of newspaper-newsroom employees shrank by more than half.” Although this fall in journalism outlets is often attributed to the rise of digital media on the internet, Kerr makes a strong case that “conglomerate and hedge-fund media” companies are at least equally to blame. “We need,” he argues, “to reinvent the news economy from one that serves a few owners to one that serves the needs of democracy…”
The decline in print and broadcast media is especially acute for science journalism, where one study showed that between 1989 and 2021 the number of weekly science journalism sections fell from 95 to 19. As the number of full-time science journalists at newspapers and broadcast stations declines, more and more free-lance science journalists and general journalists are called upon to cover the ever-increasing complexity of modern science. High-quality science journalism written by reporters with expertise in scientific specialties is thus in ever-shorter supply, leaving us nowhere to turn except the internet for scientific information about health, climate change, and other vital topics.
Internet Science is Only Sometimes Reliable
Enough has been written at this point about the deluge of disinformation and misinformation in general and about science and health in particular that appears on internet platforms. Thus, if we are forced to look online for information about the latest medical advances, as is happening because of the decline in quality science journalism, we will find some things that are accurate and others that are not. Discovering which online sources are reliable is difficult and we know that many people wind up making unhealthy decisions in part based on inaccurate online information. We thus fully agree with Timothy Kerr that we need to reconsider public funding for high-quality, independent media in the U.S. to fill the severe losses in reliable local news and science journalism that we face.
Of course, many will raise the objection that government funded media is a slippery slope to loss of a free press and government control of newspapers and airwaves. That is a legitimate concern. Critica Chief Medical Officer David Scales acknowledged this worry when he wrote “I completely agree that we need to be very careful about government funding of media” but he goes on to point out that we could adopt models like the U.K.’s BBC “where the government doesn’t directly fund it at all but puts in place a revenue stream for public broadcasting.” Scales went on to assert that “as the evidence for investing some sort of publicly-supported media in a robust democracy grows stronger, the ideological argument that this should remain an unregulated space to encourage free speech and allow the private sector to innovate grows increasingly hollow.”
According to Timothy Karr, the non-profit organization Free Press now advocates for a “doubling of public funds for noncommercial news and information.” Still, having the U.S. federal government be the funder for such an effort may be impossible given the robust objections to anything that smacks of impinging on freedom of the press. Therefore, Critica believes that independent foundations should come together to create a steady stream of funds for high-quality media, focusing particularly on, but not limited to, health. The coronavirus pandemic has taught us how vital it is to get clear and trustworthy health information to the public, information that is not sensationalized but rather covers the background information that people need to make healthy and informed decisions. Research shows that publicly funded, high-quality, and independent journalism advances healthy democracies. We will continue to advocate for a plan to bring this concept home to the U.S.