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Chapter 2: Does Public Media Enhance Citizen Knowledge?

Because most citizens get their information about politics & current affairs from the media, a key concern for political communication scholars has been investigating the links between (1) media funding & organization & (2) the supply of political information and public knowledge

Published onFeb 27, 2019
Chapter 2: Does Public Media Enhance Citizen Knowledge?

“Political information is to democratic politics what money is to economics: it is the currency of citizenship.”

—Delli Carpini and Keeter, What Americans Know about Politics and Why It Matters

Although there are disagreements about how politically knowledgeable citizens should be for democracy to function well, few argue against the notion that an informed citizenry is good for democracy. Because most citizens get their information about politics and current affairs from the media, a key concern for political communication scholars has been investigating the links between (1) media funding and organization and (2) the supply of political information and public knowledge.

To understand these mechanisms is perhaps more important now than ever before, as the media landscape is radically expanding and the number of commercial media channels multiplying. The challenge to existing media brought by this expansion is assumed to be a positive development, as citizen choices are enhanced. Such positive expectations about the emerging commercial media are mirrored by a rise in the number of questions about the relevance of publicly funded journalism. In many countries, there is now a heated debate about whether public media is distortive and stifles growth, innovation and plurality in the sector. However, as argued here, more commercial media does not automatically mean a more informed public. In fact, paradoxically, a higher number of information providers may result in a less informed democracy.

The purpose of this text is not to review these national political disputes. Instead, its aim is to provide a short and accessible assessment of current research on the supply and quality of hard news reporting in public and more commercially driven news media and to discuss how these media may influence political knowledge and public awareness.

Public versus Commercial Media in the Supply of News and Current Affairs

Recent comparative studies have shown that the status of public service media and their market impact vary considerably between nations (Hallin and Mancini 2004; Benson and Powers 2011; Rövekamp 2014). In some countries, the media system is highly fragmented and mostly commercial, like the American and Australian media sectors. In most other Western democratic states, however, there is a more balanced mix of public and private media. In many cases, public broadcasters are also the dominant media outlet, both in terms of audience size and in terms of quality and independence. In Western and Northern regions of Europe, public service broadcasters have received large amounts of governmental support. In contrast, audiences for public service channels in Australia, the United States, Canada and many countries in Eastern and Southern Europe tend to be significantly smaller.

Many public service broadcasters have experienced a severe funding crisis in recent years, as politicians and publics have become more skeptical about the role public media can (and should) play in the future. To remain relevant in a twenty-first-century media landscape, public service broadcasters have begun supplying online and social media platforms and, in the process, become known as public service media (Donders, Pauwels, and Loisen 2012). Nevertheless, they have continued to operate under a remit that promotes the ‘public good’ and serves the needs of all citizens (Cushion 2012; Hendy 2012). Typically, it is thus argued that public media should be distinctive from commercial competitors and pursue normative values, such as producing appealing content for all citizens—including minority groups—and pursuing an editorially diverse and independent agenda (Tracey 1998). Public media are also justified on the basis of their ability to better inform citizens as commercial media chase audiences and advertisers to survive. It is argued that market incentives will therefore lead to an overproduction of content that is popular, to the detriment of that which informs and empowers citizens about public affairs. Side-stepping entrenched political positions, what does the empirical research contribute to this debate?

The research evidence is somewhat mixed, but a majority of studies tend to support the assessment that there are significant differences between public and private media content. For instance, the general conclusions from schedule analyses, presented by Aalberg, van Aelst and Curran (2010) and Esser et al. (2012) show that public service media offer better political information opportunities than commercial media. When comparing the top two public service and commercial broadcasters in each country during periods when many media markets were deregulated and commercialised, a common finding was that market-driven channels gradually enhanced the availability of news. This challenged the belief that commercialization has diminished the supply of news altogether.

However, both studies also stressed that the presence of public service broadcasting within a national media ecology appeared to ensure that news continued to be scheduled at peak time. In other words, in ‘countries where public television has a stronger standing, the public are offered more prime-time news and current affairs, not only by PBS channels but also by commercial ones’ (Aalberg, van Aelst, and Curran 2010, 266). In contrast, in the market-driven media environment of the United States, there was a distinct lack of news programming and current affairs, including less at peak times and less on the most popular channels. These studies also demonstrate that established public service channels generally deliver more news than their commercial counterparts. This finding is supported by van Santen and Vliengenhart’s 2013 study of Dutch TV programming over a fifty-year period. This study recorded that commercial broadcasters spent less time on information and more time on ‘infotainment’ and entertainment than Dutch public service channels.

An important limitation to studying broadcasting schedules, however, is that they cannot provide evidence about the quality of information provided. Accordingly, Esser et al. (2012) speculate about whether or not the positive effect of the growing amount of information is at least partly wiped out by rising levels of soft news with less relevance to the democratic process. One approach to evaluate the quality of news is to distinguish between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news, or pure information and infotainment. Reinemann et al. (2012, 234) define hard news as media content that is politically relevant for society as a whole and based on impersonal and unemotional reporting. Soft news, on the other hand, is viewed as less political and more focused on individuals and thus on personal and emotional reporting.

Research evidence about longitudinal changes in the supply of hard versus soft news is mixed (Reinemann et al. 2012). Although some studies suggest that news has not become ‘softer’ over recent decades (Scott and Gobetz 1992; Waldahl, Andersen, and Rønning 2009), others have found evidence to suggest the opposite (Patterson 2000; Donsbach and Büttner 2005; Sinardet, De Swert, and Dandoy 2004). It is also important to note that public service broadcasters with large audiences do not automatically foster hard news environments. For instance, although widely watched, the Italian public service broadcaster does not seem to generate a lot of hard news (Aalberg et al. 2013; Reinemann, Stanyer, and Scherr 2016).

However, several recent studies have identified clear differences in terms of hard and soft news content in public service and commercial media. For example, Maier, Ruhrmann and Stengel’s 2009 study of seven different German television newscasts between 1992 and 2007 found significant differences. Although there is a linear increase of non-political content in commercial channels, this is not the case in newscasts provided by the public service channels. Aalberg et al. (2013) found that public service providers across nine different countries supplied more hard news on foreign affairs than commercial broadcasters, who pursued more of an international soft news agenda. As it is costly to assemble hard, thematic news, especially in foreign countries, the authors suggest that this may be a response to corporate commercial considerations. Reinemann, Stanyer and Scherr’s 2016 comprehensive study of sixteen Western democracies demonstrated that public service broadcasters in general provided more hard news than commercial television networks, even after controlling for how commercialised the media system was.

Hence, one of the main conclusions of much of this literature is that the ‘ecological effects’ of strong public service television center on its contribution to a general climate in which media are more likely to report about politics in more substantial ways.

Media Systems and Public Knowledge

Publicly supported media systems tend to provide greater opportunities for citizens to encounter informative news, and many comparative studies therefore argue that citizens also are more likely to learn from it (Aalberg and Curran 2012; Curran et al. 2009; Iyengar et al. 2010; Soroka et al. 2013). Put simply, countries that support and help fund public journalism and that therefore offer a larger share of substantive news content to large audiences produce a better learning environment than those with market-driven media systems, through which quality news is less easily available.

These favorable opportunity structures are determined not only by the sheer volume of news and information, but also by their extensive distribution to a large and heterogenic audience. For instance, the placement of news and current affairs between popular shows and in attractive timeslots is seen to engage ‘inadvertent’ audiences—that is, those viewers who had not planned to watch the news but came across it accidently. Blumler (1970) first recognised the democratic value of reaching such audiences through these smart ‘traps’.

Several recent empirical studies have supported this thesis (Curran et al. 2009; Iyengar et al. 2010), with reference to the public service versus commercial media debate. Aalberg and Curran (2012) demonstrate, for instance, that the knowledge gap between the interested and the uninterested is relatively small in many European countries, but this gap is quite dramatic in the United States. Citizens who were very interested in politics and who declared that they follow domestic politics closely were indeed very well informed across all countries and media systems, including the commercial US system. However, although uninterested citizens in Europe still managed to be relatively well informed, this was not the case in the United States, where a substantial minority had minimal news media exposure and remained politically uninformed. Insights from these studies suggest that the larger and increased knowledge gap in the more market-oriented US media system indicates that learning about politics is a more active process than in many European countries. US citizens are now required to work harder to actively seek out the news (Prior 2007).

The more extensive information environments offered by media systems with stronger public service providers, by contrast, stimulate more passive learning. Shehata’s 2013 study, using Swedish panel data, found that exposure to news at election time had stronger effects on current affairs learning among citizens with lower levels of general political knowledge. This occurred despite the fact that these news programs are watched less extensively by this group of citizens, simply because they learn more from news exposure than high-information groups. Shehata thus concluded that ‘the smaller current affairs knowledge gaps found in public service-oriented countries are, at least partly, the result of passive learning from television’s inadvertent audiences who are captured by the extensive political information opportunities provided by the major television channels’ (2013, 217). However, the new tendency toward watching television content online, rather than live, may reduce this inadvertent audience effect (Prior 2007).

Shehata (2013) did not control for the different effects of exposure to public service versus commercial media. However, as in other studies, his data suggested that the most knowledgeable citizens tended to prefer public service channels, whereas the less informed, to a larger extent, watch commercial news. Strömbäck’s Swedish study (2015), however, did find that exposure to public service news lead to positive knowledge effects, whereas exposure to commercial news had negative knowledge effects. These results hold even after stringent controls, including general prior political knowledge.

An important innovation in media effects research is to control for self-selection tendencies within particular audiences (Soroka et al. 2013; Fraile and Iyengar 2014). Soroka and his colleagues (2013) found that compared to commercial news, public service broadcasters had a positive influence on news knowledge. However, not all public service providers were equally effective in this way (e.g., the effect of exposure to the Italian public broadcaster was actually negative). In the United Kingdom, there was a clear positive effect of exposure to news from public service broadcasters and a clear negative effect of exposure to commercial news. Also controlling for self-selection of news, Fraile and Iyengar (2014) found that public broadcasters had more informative effects than commercial broadcasters on unmotivated citizens, but exposure to broadsheet newspapers generally overshadow the positive effect of public service news exposure.

The empirical evidence also suggests that differences in national news supply influence not only how much citizens know about politics, but also the type of knowledge learnt. One of the patterns found in many studies is that Americans are less informed about international news compared to people in less market-driven media systems (e.g., Aalberg et al. 2013). Another, perhaps more important type of current affairs knowledge is marked by citizens’ ability to describe issue positions of main political parties. A surprisingly large number of citizens find it impossible to do this, however (Jenssen, Aalberg, and Aarts 2012, 144). Among citizens with low hard current affairs knowledge, more than half of the respondents were unable to describe parties’ issue positions. Jenssen, Aalberg and Aarts (2012) investigated whether the media was able to help lift people out of this political ignorance. They found that exposure to public service news had the most positive effect, whereas exposure to news from commercial broadcasters was less important. Similarly, Banducci, Giebler and Kritzinger (2015), using the European Election Study from 2009, showed that citizens who obtain information via quality news outlets (including public service broadcasters) had a better understanding of parties’ policy positions than voters who received their information through low-quality outlets (including commercial broadcasters).


This chapter suggests that citizens are more likely to be exposed to hard news and be more knowledgeable about current affairs if they watch public service news or news in public service–dominated media systems, compared to more market-driven news environments. Although there is some mixed evidence, the overall picture indicates that media economy and public knowledge are related. The quality of the information environment and the positive effect of public service providers are based on institutional independence. Commercial broadcasters clearly provide citizens with more news opportunities if they need to comply with certain regulations and compete with a relatively strong public broadcaster. Despite the amount of news steadily increasing over recent decades, with more commercial choice and competition, this review suggests that public service media remain distinctly different from market-driven news and that they clearly are more effective in engendering informed citizenship.


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