In a November 2016 article, Nick Couldry and Clemencia Rodriguez, both from the International Panel on Social Progress, stated that “media infrastructure is a common good whose governance and design should be much more open to democratic engagement than currently”. Does the population agree with this view?
In an April 2017 internet survey of 1,041 individuals representative of the age and race composition of the adult population in the United States, we explored people’s perceptions and use of the media.
Internet dominates use of time
Let’s start with basics. The survey indicates that the American population spends a significant amount of time on the internet, a trend driven by the young, the high-income people, and the politically progressive.
What do Americans do on internet? Email is at the top of the things that take the most time, followed by social media. While email leads the list, social media use is driven by a fraction of avid users, who primarily include the young and the politically progressive.
Growing diversity of news sources
When asked about the sources of news, a striking pattern appears. TV still dominates daily news, but media websites and social media have become much more important than newspapers. Moreover, among the sources that are rarely used, newspapers are now cited by 37% of the respondents. Non-traditional websites and blogs are still trail newspapers, but are now very close. Person-to-person discussions are the news source that is the least relied upon.
Those who identify themselves as politically progressive access all kinds of news sources, whereas those who are relatively conservative tend to rely more on newspapers and magazines than other sources (even controlling for age and other characteristics). Compared to men, women have higher use of the radio, TV, newspapers and magazines, and alternative media. More educated people are relying less on TV news and unsurprisingly, the elderly prefer using newspapers and TV, confirming that there is a trend linked to generations.
Low trust, major concerns
Given the diversity of sources, how do people value the content? Respondents were asked how much they endorsed certain sentences about the media, from 0 (completely disagree) to 100 (complete agree).
The value of 50 found about the objectivity of the news is worrisome, because it means that, overall, those surveyed neither agree nor disagree with the statement that news are presented in an objective way. And this score does not mean that people have no strong opinion, because there are quite diverse levels of endorsement for various respondents. Men, the conservative, the educated and the more religious are less inclined than the other categories to believe that news are objective.
There is a stronger consensus on the view that news are too focused on the negative.
Similarly, when asked to rank on a scale of 0 to 100 how concerned they are about particular issues with the media, respondents point to influence of the media owners before perceptions of government meddling and commercial tracking. Foreign influence is a lesser issue.
The conservative respondents are less concerned that the news they get may be controlled by the owners of media or foreign powers. Those with progressive political views are relatively more concerned about their news access being monitored by private corporations for commercial tracking.
Even if our survey was performed before recent events involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, our survey shows a strong concern about corporate use of private data as well as government surveillance.
The politically progressive and middle-aged are more concerned than others about government surveillance and corporate use of personal information. Women and the rich are less concerned than others with hate speech.
A liberal bias?
When more explicitly asked about media bias in the news, the respondents have a more widely shared view that the bias is toward the Left than the Right of the political spectrum. But other important bias concerns are expressed about social movements, the government and business interests. Religions and minorities are less of a concern.
Unsurprisingly, respondents with strong political views are more likely to feel that there is a bias against their views in the news. The non-white are less likely, and the non-religious more likely, to find a left-leaning bias in the media. The middle class, the more educated, the non-white and the non-religious are less concerned about pro-government bias. Women and politically progressive respondents worry more than others about a pro-business bias. The rich believe that news are too much in favour of protestors whereas minorities think the opposite. Older people are less inclined to believe that the media are disrespectful of minorities whereas the progressives think otherwise.
Media, a public service
The current business model for the media in most countries, and particularly in the United States, is as a for-profit, private business. This model is rejected by 80% of survey respondents, with only 13% approving. Surprisingly, perhaps, those who are more willing to pay for news include women, the young and the politically progressive, whereas religious respondents have mixed views – the most religious are more opposed to the private model than the moderately religious.
The private-business model relies on advertisement as a funding source. This is indeed considered bothersome by 59% of the respondents. Women are less bothered than men.
On a scale from 0 (not important at all) to 100 (very important), respondents strongly support a participatory and inclusive model for the media.
The politically progressive and middle-aged are more in favour of citizens having a voice in the decisions about management of media, whereas the rich oppose this view. Those who identify as religious and the elderly are relatively unconcerned about creating content for diffusing on the Internet whereas it is favoured by women and progressives. Racial minorities, the middle aged and progressives more strongly support minorities being represented in the media.
People’s critical views about the current situation do not induce a consensus about the most likely future of the media, and all scenarios receive some support. It interesting to see that increased private control of the media is not seen as more likely than increased public control, either by the government or by grassroots journalism.
Marc Fleurbaey, Professor in Economics and Humanistic Studies, Princeton University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.