Government and corporations hinder journalists with ‘media capture’

Illustration: AP

Around the world, many media organizations are not truly independent. Think of Sheldon Adelson buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal, or accusations over the influence of Spanish telecom giant Telefonica over El Pais, or Thailand and Italy with their crony-owned media outlets, or the rise of media outlets in Turkey and Hungary that have the support of government and the recent, relentless persecution of journalists who don’t. These are just a few examples—in a very long list—of countries where political parties and corporations work in tandem to subtly or boldly pressure media to produce favorable coverage.

There’s a term for this: “media capture.” Capture is different from the old-school forms of control with censors marking up copy in red ink or government agencies issuing directives as to what should be covered. It’s a form of soft pressure that is ubiquitous and increasing in many parts of the world. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, professor of democracy studies at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, defines media capture as a situation in which the news media are controlled “either directly by governments or by vested interests networked with politics.” The definition provides a useful framework for understanding the continuing rise of right wing populism and how governments maintain their hold on the public. It also helps to explain the increasingly tangled relationships between repressive regimes and the news media they seek to dominate.

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Government and corporate control of the press is certainly not new but has gone in a new direction, exacerbated not just by the rise of right wing populism but also by digital technology and the far reach of the internet.

It’s hard to remember now how many people thought the internet would secure the reign of independent journalism by boosting the flow of information. Instead, the loss of advertising revenues for traditional media has created a cascading effect that in some countries has left the press fighting for its life. This collapse of the old business model paved the way for media capture to take hold. Finding solutions to the problems of capture, or at least ways to limit its effects, is one of the crucial challenges of our time. Government regulation of cross-ownership, digital taxation, and financial support for quality media are just a few much-needed solutions.  


It’s hard to remember now how many people thought the internet would secure the reign of independent journalism by boosting the flow of information.

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The theory of media capture comes from economics, and indeed, economists were the first to use the term about 15 years ago when they expanded on the idea of “regulatory capture.” The concept was the work of Nobel Laureate George Stigler, and explains how, for example, financial regulators fail to properly regulate the banks and financial institutions they are supposed to be supervising. Economists understood the economic incentives—the revolving door to jobs in finance means that regulators do not properly supervise banks and financial institutions because the regulators may end up working for the organizations they regulate. “Poacher turned gamekeeper” is one of way of understanding the concept of capture.

The handful of economists who began to use the concept of capture to discuss the media explored both the occurrence of media capture and its consequences. In 2006, Timothy Besley of the London School of Economics and Andrea Prat of Columbia Business School looked at Mexico, Russia, Thailand, Italy, and India and concluded that even in countries that have a free press—at least theoretically—there can still be a substantial chilling political influence on the media. That same year, Giacomo Corneo of the Free University of Berlin looked at the political outcomes of this kind of influence, and argued that increased economic concentration in societies makes the occurrence of media bias more likely. Maria Petrova of the Institute for Political Economy and Governance in Barcelona wrote in 2007 that voters may not know their true interests, and that inequality may be worsened as a result of media capture, particularly in a situation in which the media is captured by the rich. Politicians will likely be voted out of office at some point. The wealthy, on the other hand, could retain control for far longer, and cause more damage. The rich therefore have more incentive to take control and keep control of the media.


New forms of capture: the effect of digital technology and the decline of advertising revenues

Digital technology has proven to be a game changer for theories of media capture, both in terms of the prevalence of capture and the quality of the media.

Ten years ago, many scholars, though not all, assumed that since it was now so easy for a news organization, big or small, to publish online, governments and advertisers would have a much harder time co-opting media. Because even if parts of the media were captured, the outlets that still retained their editorial independence would provide the necessary checks on corporate and political interests—except in those cases where the government suppressed access to the internet. Basically, the theory went, since the internet allowed for the existence of so many outlets, it would be impossible to capture them all. And, scholars surmised, the increased competition might even lead to higher-quality news.

In fact, the opposite may have happened. The rise of digital media paved the way for the decline of traditional business models. The dramatic fall in revenues caused by the migration of advertising to the internet, the massive job losses in the print industry, and the ease of free distribution hurt news quality and introduced new forms of capture.

As media outlets became desperate for revenue, economist Julia Cagé has argued in Saving the Media (Harvard University Press, 2016), they rushed to compete for mass audiences and quality fell. At the same time, many digital-first news outlets emerged and gained high readership rates despite sometimes lower standards of reporting. And many of the legacy outlets known for their rigorous editorial standards have welcomed financial arrangements, such as native advertising, that they might have rejected 20 years ago. The growth of native advertising, along with an erosion of the wall between the editorial and advertising sides of many publications, have made it harder for the media to act as a watchdog and cover big business critically.

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Then came Facebook and Google. As their news-delivering power increased, so did the possibilities for new forms of media capture. Not only have these digital intermediaries scooped up most of the advertising revenue from traditional news outlets, but their algorithms make decisions as to what news and information reaches the public. In a paper, Efrat Nechushtai raises the idea of what she calls “infrastructural capture.” Google and Facebook own the platforms used by publishers, which poses a problem for news organizations as users and watchdogs of those platforms. While news organizations are expected to cover Google and Facebook critically, they rely on them for news distribution, data, and revenue.

Traditionally, media owners were attracted by “power, public service, profit,” argues Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. Others would add “status.” But owning a media company is no longer the profitable investment it once was, which makes it more likely that wealthy business people would want to own media outlets to advance their political agendas rather than their bottom lines. Digital media, then, for all its accessibility and reach, may be doing exactly the opposite of what people had hoped—instead of creating a new landscape in which it is much more difficult for governments and businesses to influence content, it may be making it much easier. Indeed, according to Columbia Business School Professor Eli Noam, who has recently mapped media ownership globally, when non media companies move into media it’s usually because they view “media properties as the mouthpiece for personal and business interests.” William Randolph Hearst moving from silver mines to newspapers is one example. Ronald Lauder (cosmetics) owning media properties today in Israel largely to promote his perspectives on Mideast politics is another,  Noam notes in a forthcoming paper for Journalism.


While news organizations are expected to cover Google and Facebook critically, they rely on them for news distribution, data, and revenue.


New forms of capture: the role of philanthropy

When advertising revenues collapsed and news outlets were unable to persuade readers to pay for high-quality news, foundations and philanthropists including George Soros, the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist Graeme Wood, and the Sadler Foundation, stepped into the breach, intending to bolster floundering news organizations across the globe by giving them money. They have been hailed in many corners for doing so.

But even as they introduced a new source of funding and a possible lifeline, they also opened the door to a new form of media capture. Some journalists worry that this kind of funding carries with it potential threats to newsroom independence, because while some donors provide general support for reporting (such as a grant for investigative reporting), many of the new donors, including the Omidyar Network, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, underwrite reporting on topics they believe are important, such as the environment or governance. The most commonly cited example is that of the Gates Foundation, which funds reporting on health and education and has strong views about the kinds of stories and solutions that should be covered. Many media outlets need funds, and are willing to accept money from foundations. The result? Coverage to meet donors’ demands. In a forthcoming paper in Journalism, Rodney Benson argues for policies that can protect the independence of media outlets. “Reforms encouraging more long-term, no-strings attached funding by foundations, along with development of small donor and public funding, could help nonprofits overcome their current limitations,” he writes.


New Forms of Capture: Political transition in the 21st century

In many cases, political transition has freed the media, but in others, these transitions have led to new forms of capture. Typically, political transition, such as the end of a war or toppling of a dictator leading to democracy, creates a flowering of media outlets that are unable to support themselves financially and then close. As transitions take place, new alliances emerge that can pave the way for capture in place of pure government control. In an essay on Tunisia, Kamel Labidi explains that after the death of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the family and friends who had been given radio licenses during his regime joined forces with newly emergent Islamists parties to block attempts to open up the media sector. Other papers look at how political transition has affected press freedom in Burma, Czech Republic, the Balkans, and Hong Kong.

During times of political transition, many scholars look wistfully at the British Broadcasting Corporation and wonder whether it’s possible to turn their local state-owned television station into an impartial, high quality public broadcaster. Yet Marius Dragomir says that public funding can become a tool for capture when it’s selectively given to media that doesn’t threaten the government while being withheld from independent, critical media. “By financing media and journalists willing to toe the government line and by not funding independent, critical media, authorities manage to suppress large parts of the media sector,” he writes. “In some countries, the entire media industry is controlled by governments, directly or indirectly.”

When non media companies move into media it’s usually because they view ‘media properties as the mouthpiece for personal and business interests’

Despite Dragomir’s gloomy assessment, public broadcasting is, in many countries, still one of the best ways to ensure at least one major media outlet is not captured and can serve as a standard-setter that might encourage others to start media organizations focused on editorial independence and quality. In Scandinavia, for example, public broadcasters are highly trusted and government subsidizes media to ensure diversity of opinion and high quality information.

Finding a solution to the problem of media capture means devising and implementing policies that will be effective as the media landscape evolves. The threats from social media and digital technology will only grow, and they must be dealt with. If media capture is impossible to eradicate, and it most likely is, then we will need to look to governments (including those in Scandinavia) that have policies that encourage true media diversity and create opportunities for equal time for outlets and candidates of differing political persuasions. This is particularly true for coverage of politics and economics. Regulations governing cross-ownership, government advertising, and transparency of ownership will be needed if we want to protect quality media from the world’s leaders and their friends.

Additional research by Susanna de Martino and editing by Andrea Gurwitt. This piece was adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming special issue of Journalism on media capture.

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Anya Schiffrin is the director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She is on the advisory board of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and on the Global Board of the Open Society Foundation.