By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Discuss the types of media and their history.
- Explain how ownership affects both media content and consumers and why it is relevant in the study of politics.
- Compare and contrast state versus privately owned media.
The oldest known printed book in the world is the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text that was printed using fixed wooden blocks in 868 CE.30 In the 11th century, roughly a thousand years later, Chinese inventor Bi Sheng developed movable type,31 a system of movable letters that could be reused to repeatedly print text. Movable type changed the course of human knowledge and history because it allowed for faster dissemination of information, cheaper printing, and the shareability of printed material. This newfound ability for people to share knowledge challenged traditional authority, and in the 16th century, Pope Alexander VI prohibited unlicensed printing in an attempt to suppress publications that promoted ideas or threatened the orthodox faith.32
The Chinese Invention of Printing and Movable Type
The Chinese invented paper, printing, and movable type. This video shows how Chinese movable type was developed and how it works.
The pope’s actions show that, as English writer and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” That is, the ability to spread information freely was an existential threat to traditional power structures. The mass availability of printed material reflects the democratization of knowledge, as education and books were no longer exclusive artifacts of the elite. The media landscape today is very different from when Bi Sheng first created movable type. This section examines the different types of media that exist today as well as recent significant changes in the media environment—and how these changes affect the media’s ability to play the role of gatekeeper and information provider.
Types of Media and Their History
The media can be categorized into four broad groups: print, radio, television, and the Internet. Print media includes newspapers, magazines, and books. This section will briefly discuss the history and current state of each medium as well as how ownership of these industries affects the political world.
According to Cornell University professor Theodore Lowi, Johns Hopkins University professor Benjamin Ginsberg, and Harvard University professors Kenneth Shepsle and Stephen Ansolabehere, print media is important for three primary reasons. First, other media—including television, radio, and now online news aggregators and podcasts—rely on print media to set the news agenda with original coverage. Second, print media provides more context and details than other forms of media. Finally, print media (and its online iterations, such as online versions of newspapers) are the prime information source for the elite.33 While some have proclaimed that “print is dead,” there is plenty of evidence to the contrary: though newspaper circulation has declined, unique visitors to news websites have increased.34 What has emerged is a symbiosis of print and online media, where traditional flagship news sources such as the New York Times and various magazines move online to recapture waning audiences, while some previously online-only sources launch physical magazines. In December 2020, Forbes ran an aptly named article titled “Stop Saying Print Journalism Is Dead. 60 Magazines Launched during This Crazy Year,”35 pointing out that people still like print, and, as University of Texas professor Iris Chyi explains, the reason for this is biological; tangible material leaves a deeper footprint in the brain.36 A study of democratic European countries confirmed the same phenomenon: print media is still resilient in the face of an expanding online environment.37 Commercial Observer reporter Chava Gourarie explains the phenomenon this way: “It seems print and digital can co-exist after all. The new won’t replace the old. The new will hammer the old, deform it, reform it, reconceive, reconfigure, but the old won’t disappear.”38 Later parts of this chapter will further investigate the impact of the Internet on traditional media.
Print media has not suffered as much in other parts of the world, particularly in developing countries. A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that “print newspapers are thriving . . . in countries with untapped and emerging population segments. In some parts of the world, such as India, reading a print newspaper is a prestigious activity, in much the same way that it was for immigrants a century ago in the United States,”39 and increased literacy in developing countries also contributes to this trend.40 Newspaper circulation increased by double-digits in South America, Asia, and Africa between 2004 and 2009.41
The first commercial radio station was born in the United States on November 2, 1920, when Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company transmitted the first scheduled broadcast, announcing live returns of the presidential election contest between Warren G. Harding and James Cox. Westinghouse obtained the first US commercial broadcasting station license in the same year, and seven years later, the Radio Act of 1927 created the Federal Radio Commission to oversee radio broadcasting, replacing the Department of Commerce in its oversight duties.42 This marked the beginning of what has come to be known as the golden age of radio, from the late 1920s until the early 1950s, when radio broadcasts were millions of Americans’ primary source of news and entertainment.43 Television would soon overtake radio as the primary form of entertainment in the home, but as of 2019, radio programming still reached more Americans than any other media platform.44 While the United States is considered the largest and most important radio market, other developed countries constitute important markets for radio broadcasters. The United Nations continues to celebrate the radio on World Radio Day, hailing the humble technology as a “vector of freedom” because radio supplies low-cost information and remains a widely used technology around the globe.45
The first black-and-white television was introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair,46 and in 1941, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US government commission that currently oversees radio, television, wire, and now the Internet, authorized commercial broadcasting in the United States.47 The introduction of color television quickly followed in the early 1950s, and by the 1980s, around 90 percent of American households had a television.48 This era is what Queensland University of Technology professor Amanda D. Lotz terms “the network era,” when three major television networks had a fixed schedule and provided the majority of media content. During this era, most homes had one television, and television was a means of “bring[ing] the outside world into the home.”49 Coaxial cable television was first developed in the 1930s to provide television to rural areas that could not receive broadcast signals. Cable television became more widespread starting in the 1950s and culminating in the 1970s with the introduction of Home Box Office (HBO), which fought with the FCC to be allowed to provide for-fee television content through a cable network.50 Steady growth of the industry peaked in the early 2000s, and by 2010, more than 105 million Americans—or about 90 percent of homes—paid for cable television services. 51 Yet the number of Americans who said they watched television via cable or satellite plunged from 76 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2021,52 while a recent Deloitte consulting study found that 82 percent of respondents subscribed to a streaming service.53 The trend of moving from traditional television to streaming or mobile services can be seen elsewhere in the world, though it is progressing at a slower pace. In India in 2018, 197 million households had televisions, while only a fraction of that number (60 million) utilized the country’s most popular on-demand media programming.54
The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), which was established through the US Department of Defense in the early 1960s, built on research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to fund and administer one of the first iterations of the Internet.55 By 1969, ARPANET mainly connected research universities to one another, but at the urging of the telecommunication and computer industry, the government was persuaded to open up the network for public use. In 1993, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) put the technology into the public domain56 thanks to the research of MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee, who created the framework for the World Wide Web and the use of links and hyperlinks. The Internet has of course altered the way people interact with every communication medium. Never have people been able to access so much information at once from one place, be it with a laptop or a smartphone. As of 2021, 97 percent of all adults owned a cell phone, and 87 percent owned a smartphone; over 95 percent of Americans ages 18 to 49 reported using a smartphone.57 A 2018 survey found that, worldwide, a median of 76 percent of the populations of 18 advanced economies had smartphones compared to just 45 percent in emerging economies, with South Korea reporting the highest smartphone adoption rate at 95 percent.58 In 2020, more than 80 percent of Americans got their news from a smartphone, while only 10 percent got news from a printed newspaper.59 Of those using online news, more than half of Americans said they get their news from social media “at least sometimes,” and a third of Americans stated that they regularly get news from Facebook.60 Later parts of this chapter will investigate the role of social media in more depth.
Ownership of the Media
Between print media, radio, television, and streaming services, it feels like people have a lot of choice when it comes to media. However, the United States and Europe have what is called media concentration, where a few firms own the majority of channels and content. In fact, five companies own and produce 90 percent of what Americans watch today.61 Another word to describe this type of media ownership pattern, in which a small number of corporations dominate the market, is an oligopoly.
Is media concentration a cause for concern? Columbia Business School professor Eli Noam argues that larger corporations have the money to invest in good journalists and foster reader loyalty.62 Since being acquired by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post has increased hiring and has shown profitability, unlike many other newspapers.63 However, because these companies are privately owned, it is not irrational to assume that they are profit-seeking businesses that look to maximize earnings over other, perhaps loftier, goals. As such, these companies may choose easy-to-sell programming over content with high information value. Providence College professor Matt Guardino writes, “When control over the media is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, owners may be able to use their corporations’ powerful platforms to amplify propaganda driven by their own political views or business interests.”64 In addition, profit maximization can lead to budgetary constraints such as reduced foreign news coverage or other staffing cutbacks, which can affect the content of the news and, by extension, what information citizens and voters can access. A 2018 study found that “ownership chains” had “a homogenizing effect on the content of newspapers’ coverage of foreign policy, resulting in coverage across co-owned papers that is more similar in scope (what they cover), focus (how much ‘hard’ relative to ‘soft’ news they offer), and diversity (the breadth of topics they include in their coverage of a given issue) relative to . . . papers that are not co-owned.”65 As Senior Research and Teaching Associate at University of Zurich Edda Humprecht notes, “Large media corporations are assumed to offer superficial or scandalizing news content in order to attract large audiences,”66 and this idea has been backed by various empirical studies that point to the reduction of more serious news in favor of content with what is perceived to be higher entertainment value. Stanford researcher Mark Cooper iterates this point: “Concentration of ownership may foster entertainment variety, but it undermines diversity of information and journalistic enterprise.”67 He also notes that “concentration of media ownership reduces the diversity of local reporting and gives dominant firms in local markets an immense amount of power to influence critical decisions. Consolidation in national chains squeezes out the local point of view.”68 A study of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which provides news to more than 70 percent of American households, found that news outlets under concentrated ownership focused on national news over local interest, produced slightly more politically conservative content, and resulted in a small downward shift in viewership.69 This is troubling when considered alongside research that finds that smaller station groups produce higher-quality newscasts than stations owned by larger companies—by a significant margin.70 It is not difficult to see how ownership affects not just what people see but also what they consider important—and how that can affect the public’s view of politics.
The picture of media ownership in Europe is similar to that in the United States in that six corporations also own the majority of media content across Europe, prompting the European Union to commission the 2020 report Monitoring Media Pluralism in the Digital Era71 and to issue a warning about the threat that media concentration poses to pluralism and diversity of views. The European Federation of Journalists echoes this concern: “Many politicians, particularly those in the European Parliament, have repeatedly expressed concerns over the growth of huge media companies that are exercising unprecedented levels of political and commercial influence. In the process they threaten diversity and pluralism in society.”72
Private ownership is not the only media model. In many countries outside of the United States, the media are either partially or wholly owned by the state with positive effects. For example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the world’s first public broadcaster,73 draws its funding via the government in the form of a user fee while not having any direct government intervention when it comes to programming or editing. Many hail the BBC as a model for public ownership because of its high-quality news, content, and accessibility. Countries that have strong public broadcasters such as the BBC have been shown to “have higher levels of social trust, and the people who live in them are less likely to hold extremist political views.”74 Public news media continue to play a particularly prominent role in western Europe, where public news stations, including the BBC in the UK, Sveriges Television (SVT) and Sveriges Radio (SR) in Sweden, and ARD in Germany, continue to be top sources for news.75 However, in poorer, autocratic nations, state ownership of the media has been shown to undermine political and economic rights and freedoms.76 In the United States, the two highest-profile public news outlets, National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), rank far lower than private news outlets in terms of listeners and viewership.77