Clever Scandinavians have public service broadcasting to thank
People who have access to public service broadcasting are better informed about domestic and international affairs than those who rely on market driven models of media for news.
New research published in the latest European Journal of Communication (2009; 24; 5) shows that people in Finland and Denmark, both served by public service models, are able to access more ‘hard news’ and news that is more outward looking in its perspective than American viewers, who depend upon commercial broadcasters for news. And while there will be some in the UK delighted to have further confirmation of US ignorance and insularity, the news (if you will excuse the pun) is not good for Brits either. Their dual system of commercial and PSB is closer to US news content than the Scandinavians.
The research conducted by James Curran, Shanto Iyengar, Anker Brink Lund and Inka Salovaara-Moring reveals that 62% of Americans were unable to identify the Kyoto Accords as a treaty on climate change, compared with a mere 20 percent in Finland and Denmark, and 39 percent in Britain.
However the US public does rather well when it comes to knowing about soft news and celebrity gossip, with over 90 percent of Americans able to identify the celebrities Mel Gibson, Donald Trump and Britney Spears. However the Scandinavians and British did equally well on celeb-news, proving that knowing a lot about the big issues of the day doesn’t dimmish anybody’s capacity to fill their head with a lot of old shite as well!
One of the reasons put forward for the disparity between the US and Scandinavians is that the US is a vast country, with different time zones and federate government structure and this might account for an orientation towards local rather than national and international stories.
The research also found that ‘national television in European countries is more successful in reaching disadvantaged groups (defined here in terms of income, education and ethnicity) partly as a consequence of its public service tradition. And it concludes from this that
Public broadcasters, financed by a licence fee or public grant, are under enormous pressure to connect to all sections of society in order to justify their continued public funding. Any evidence that they are losing their appeal to a section of the audience usually results in urgent internal inquests, and demands for remedial action. By contrast, commercial media tend to be exposed to pressure to prioritize high-spending audiences in order to maximize advertising revenue. This can result in low-income groups receiving less attention and, even in exceptional cases, being deliberately shunned.
Curran et al argue that ultimately an knowledge of national and international issues depends upon actually being interest in the news, but they suspect that ‘a critical difference between the public service and market models is the greater ability of the former to engage an ‘inadvertent’ audience: people who might be generally disinclined to follow the course of public affairs, but who cannot help encountering news while awaiting delivery of their favourite entertainment programmes. The fact that public service television intersperses news with entertainment increases the size of the inadvertent audience.’
The results of this research are no reason for complacency in the UK where the move towards the deregulation of commercial television has had major consequences, some of which are only now becoming apparent. Curran et al refer to the research of others that shows how between 1988 and 1998, the foreign coverage of ITV’s current affairs programmes was cut in half. By 2005, its international factual programming had dropped below that of any other terrestrial channel. This had a knock-on effect on other broadcasters, most notably Channel 4, whose foreign coverage in 2005 was almost a third less than in 2000–1, but also on the BBC where there was a softening of news values. Indeed, on both BBC and ITV news, crime reporting increased at the expense of political coverage.
The decline in ‘hard news’ and international coverage is alarming and it is worth bearing in mind that Curran et al‘s content analysis of broadcast news doesn’t begin to consider the quality of coverage of domestic and international affairs. It is depressing enough to consider that there is less serious news about these days without beginning to contemplate that what there is might be crap.