Op-ed: Strengthen our democracy by funding public media

Despite the popular assumption that democracy requires a free and functional press, Americans harbor a surprising recalcitrance toward public subsidies for journalism. Many believe that if the market doesn’t support a news outlet—or if it doesn’t receive a wealthy benefactor’s support—then it deserves to wither. 

Yet, as local commercial journalism continues to collapse and misinformation and extremism continue to rise, this inaction toward market failure deserves scrutiny. Why does the federal government underfund public alternatives to broken commercial models? What are the implications of this decades-long under-valuing of public media’s well-known civic benefits, which are enjoyed by the world’s strongest democracies? 

Our new research shows that the US government is notable among democratic nations for how little it funds its public media. This lack of investment is particularly troubling considering the connections we and other researchers have found between robustly funded public broadcasting systems and well-informed political cultures with high levels of support for and engagement with democratic processes. In short, this long-standing neglect has undermined potential benefits that other democratic countries take for granted.

At $465 million dollars, 2020 federal funding of US public media amounted to just $1.40 per capita. By comparison, countries such as the UK, Norway, and Sweden devote around $100 or more per capita toward their public media. Indeed, one of the links among the world’s strongest democracies is their substantial government funding of public media systems.

At just 0.002 percent of its gross domestic product, the US allocation to public media is almost off the floor of the chart—barely registering in one visualization of our research—ranking twenty-fifth out of the twenty-seven representative countries we sampled in our analysis. Despite being the wealthiest nation on the planet, the US impoverishes its public media infrastructures, forcing public radio and television (NPR and PBS) to rely on additional tax-based outlays at the state and local level while receiving the bulk of their funding in the form of private capital from individual contributors, foundations, and corporations. 

Given the systemic market failure that’s driving US local journalism into the ground, a public media safety net is especially urgent now. The newspaper industry, still our main source of original local reporting, has seen its number of employees reduced by well over fifty percent in the last two decades. As newspapers downsize or close altogether, news deserts are spreading rapidly across the country, and hundreds of communities no longer have any local media coverage whatsoever. These growing news divides disproportionately hurt marginalized communities, especially communities of color.

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This structural journalism crisis will only get worse. As newspapers’ advertising revenue continues to shrink, local news is no longer commercially viable in many markets and communities. In the meantime, hedge funds and other parasitic buyers continue to devour and dismantle what’s left of the local media landscape.

Nonprofit and public media outlets must step in to supply critical information, especially during emergencies such as global pandemics. While Congress agreed this year on an emergency infusion of $175 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to cope with pandemic-related pressures, much more is needed to support and enhance public media over the long term.

To reach its full democratic potential, public media must be politically and economically independent. This goal requires closing the federal funding gap, as well as ensuring that adequate financial support is guaranteed well into the future, shielded from political whims and interference. Adjusting funding levels to match the UK’s public support for the BBC at 0.17 percent of its GDP would translate to about $35 billion for public media spending in the US. Even if the US spent just 0.02 percent of its GDP, it would generate $4.5 billion for public media infrastructure that could serve local communities’ information needs.  

Long-term federal funding is also critical for helping our media weather future economic crises. As we see in our comparison of public media around the world, where government sources of revenue are limited and commercial revenues dominate public media funding, the fortunes of public broadcasters rise and fall with markets. Chile’s commercially funded public broadcaster, for example, needed government-backed loans to stay afloat when ad markets crashed and debts accumulated.

Public funding ultimately establishes media as a public good. A media system founded on a non-commercial logic doesn’t privilege those who can pay or whom advertisers wish to reach. At their best, public media institutions are guided by a universal mission that seeks to provide news and information to all members of society.

Public media’s other key advantage is related to trust. Although mainstream news media face historically low levels of trust, public broadcasting enjoys relatively high levels, even among Trump supporters. Americans across the political spectrum tend to trust local media over national outlets. These higher levels of trust could provide a bipartisan leverage point for finally supporting our public media—and our democracy—at the levels they deserve.

US public media need the funding and the mandate to focus especially on the growing local news deserts across the country. Media subsidies date back to the early US postal system—they are as American as apple pie—but we need to repurpose them to today’s infrastructural needs. Well-established research on media systems and their democracies — as well as the historical and international record — suggests that such subsidies won’t usher in totalitarian regimes; quite the contrary. 

While no silver bullet can solve the journalism crisis or heal the many ailments facing society, one part of the solution must be a robust public media system that ensures all Americans—especially those long excluded from news and information systems such as BIPOC communities and poor households—are able to fully participate in our democratic society. 

If we’re serious about strengthening our democratic institutions, one place to start is by rebuilding local journalism. It’s past time to finally fund our public media in accordance with global democratic norms. 

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Victor Pickard and Timothy Neff are the authors. Victor Pickard is a Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where he co-directs the Media, Inequality & Change Center. He is the author of Democracy Without Journalism. Timothy Neff is a postdoctoral research fellow at Annenberg’s Media, Inequality and Change Center. His research focusing on media systems and climate change has been published in The International Journal of Press/Politics, International Journal of Communication, and Environmental Communication.