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Media: The homogenization of the news and the threat to press freedom

Аndrea Bertolini / Planet Next


On May 3rd the international community celebrates World Press Freedom Day. PlanetNext feels strongly about the need to uphold the values of press freedom and media independence in a world increasingly controlled by narrow political and corporate interests. To mark the occasion, PlanetNext is providing analyses, special reports and interviews on the state of, and trends in, the information industry worldwide, where access to sources is being reduced by streamlining practices and the emergence of new media; on instances of press freedom expression and repression in restive areas like North Africa, South East Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus; on the strategies and guidelines along which the daily struggle to defend press freedom is fought by international organizations such as the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders.

In a recent interview, Steven Ellis, Press Freedom Adviser at the International Press Institute (IPI), told PlanetNext that his organization is “very concerned by the consolidation of sources and the closing of foreign bureaus by a number of content providers” around the world, since this phenomenon “limits peoples’ ability to get news” and what they do get “is much narrower, coming as it does from a smaller pool of sources“.

Why is this happening? Was the internet revolution not supposed to provide greater variety? In reality, what seems to have happened is that a vastly increased number of news outlets are now chasing a diminishing number of credible original sources (NB: in the context of this article, “sources” refers to original news producers, who dig out the information and present it, rather than to those who provide information, as in military or diplomatic sources).

A couple of examples might focus  the problem. In Brussels, the number of foreign correspondents covering the massive EU institutions has dropped from 1300 in 2005 to 960 in 2009 (source: International Press Association). In the UK, “the number of foreign reporters has declined for nearly all UK newspapers in the past 30 years”, so that UK news media must rely on “fewer professional  foreign correspondents than ever” (source: New Statesman, 1 November 2010). In the United States, the number of foreign correspondents covering the world decreased from 188 in 2002 to 141 in 2006 (source: Washington Post, 2007).

The first reason usually given by publishers for closing down foreign bureaus is money: it has become too expensive to support a trained and well paid professional in a bureau abroad. Almost invariably, the second reason is that it is now possible to keep abreast of developments all over the globe simply by accessing a few well chosen local websites. It is quick and it is basically free: you repackage the basic news from the comfort of your headquarters office, make a few phone calls and you have your own story. Here there are two problems. On the one hand, those same sources will be used by countless others; on the other, one does not control the source and cannot verify its credibility.

The other basic source of information is the flow which comes from news agencies. While their number is very large, in reality most newspapers and other media subscribe to only a few, once again to save costs. Besides, when they are caught out on a rapidly developing story news agencies, too, do a lot of cut and paste from the competition or from other news websites in order to fill the gap. And, not unlike newspapers, press agencies have been curtailing the number of their foreign bureaus, and for pretty much the same reasons.

What remains is the thousands of blogs which have sprouted in the last ten-fifteen years all over the world covering just about everything under the sun. The problem with blogs—as well as Facebook, Twitter and the other social networks—is that they are and usually remain unfiltered: it is not always easy or even possible to establish whether they are pushing a certain agenda and to separate the kernel of truth from the interpretation. An established media outlet has ethical and legal responsibilities, internal controls, editors and sub editors, all of which offers a modicum of guarantee that standards are adhered to. Most bloggers, on the other hand, are unknown quantities. They are unaccountable to anyone but themselves–or at most their followers. They are their own gatekeepers; and more and more frequently they are caught up in the commercial frenzy which governs, or will soon do so, the blogosphere. It is ok if they are honest (“we are pushing this or that product or service”), it is more complicated if they succumb to hidden advertising. Finally, blogs generally produce more opinion and commentary than actual news.

In sum: credible, original news producers are drying up, severely reducing our collective knowledge base and the democratic right to pluralism in information. Grassroots, hard-to-check news producers are proliferating, providing traditional media with facile answers to the money crunch.

Aside from the figures given above in relation to the diminishing number of foreign correspondents, consider also the following. According to the Media Reform Information Center,  writing about the state of the media in the U.S.A., “in 1983, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of all news media in the U.S. At the time, Ben Bagdikian was called “alarmist” for pointing this out in his book, The Media Monopoly. In his 4th edition, published in 1992, he wrote “in the U.S., fewer than two dozen of these extraordinary creatures own and operate 90% of the mass media” — controlling almost all of America’s newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, records, movies, videos, wire services and photo agencies [….] In 2004, Bagdikian [showed] that only 5 huge corporations–Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS)–now control most of the media industry in the U.S.”.

In other words: the age of globalisation has not spared the media, pushing it towards a rapidly accelerating homogeneization. Not convinced? Try an experiment: on several successive days check the foreign news headlines of the major news outlets. You will find that the topics vary little from website to website. Of the ten main titles, a good two thirds will be the same or similar. In short: if you spend two hours every morning going through the websites of a number of highly respected and powerful news organizations, chances are that you will be reading substantially the same stories from distant lands, albeit with a different slant. This is not only a waste of time, it is a loss of pluralism and diversity. And, as the contemporary French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said, “hell is the constant repetition of the same” (Simulacres et simulation, 1981).

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(Planet Next)