What We Do (And Don’t) Know About Public Service Media

November 8, 2016 • Media Economics, Research • by

Public Service Broadcasting

An estimated €16.6 billion is invested annually in public service media provision across Europe, yet there is still much to learn about its impact.

A new Reuters Institute report  has reviewed academic and stakeholder research on the relation between public service media and private sector media with regard to their political impact, social impact, and market impact.

For the report Richard Fletcher, Annika Sehl, David Levy and I examined more than a thousand academic and stakeholder studies. The report itself, commissioned by the Danish Ministry of Culture, presents a closer review of 36 academic publications and 16 industry publications, focusing on the most relevant and recent evidence-based studies.

The main findings from the review are:

  1. There is a significant amount of research that assess the political impact of public service media. The report reviews 23 academic studies and 4 stakeholder studies. The evidence-based consensus in this area is based on a growing number of studies by different researchers using different kinds of data and approaches, with the majority concluding that public service media have a net positive impact on (a) the amount of hard news produced and (b) levels of political knowledge, and, by extension, they may also (c) incrementally increase political participation. It is important to note that this research often also find the same positive impact for some forms of private sector media, most notably morning newspapers, and that research still suggests that especially newspapers produce the largest proportion of news output in most countries.
  2. There is less research on the social impact of public service media. The report reviews 11 academic studies and 5 stakeholder studies that examine public service media impact on social trust, broader knowledge about society (beyond politics), and the degree to which media content reflects the diversity of society itself. The studies reviewed tend to point towards a net positive impact of public service media when it comes to trust, knowledge, and diversity. But the limited number of studies means that there is little or no replication and hence no basis for identifying an evidence-based consensus on the social impact of public service media. American research has suggested that private sector media can help increase social cohesion, but other researchers argue that media undermine social capital. There is no evidence-based consensus in this area.
  3. There is little research that assesses the market impact of public service media. There are very few academic publications on this subject, and most of them are of limited relevance when it comes to assessing the likely market impact of public media in the contemporary media environment. The most robust research studies carried out in this area are funded by stakeholders, including government agencies, public service media organisations, and private sector media organisations (and in the latter two cases findings tend to support the funders’ political priorities). We review two academic studies and seven stakeholder studies. On the whole, existing studies provide little evidence for a negative market impact of public service media upon domestic private sector media. (An academic article by Richard Fletcher and myself published after the report was finished finds the same.) But the limited number of studies and the dearth of independent research means there is no clear evidence-based consensus.

The academic and stakeholder research reviewed thus provides strong evidence that public service media have a positive political impact, some evidence that public service media have a positive social impact, and little evidence that public service media have a negative market impact. Similar positive political and social impact is ascribed to some types of private sector media, most importantly morning newspapers (sometimes called broadsheets or up-market).

But there are many areas where we have found little evidence-based research, or only individual studies with no replication and/or no comparative dimension across different contexts. The volume of research varies by topic, with little academic/independent research on market impact. The limited research on some issues means that one cannot assume that the absence of findings is evidence of the absence of impact (whether negative or positive). In most cases, the absence of findings simply reflects the absence of research.

Much of the research reviewed for the report is very strong, but overall it is important to note that the review presented in the report—like any meta-analysis—necessarily reflects the overall weaknesses of the field as a whole, which includes a publication bias towards publishing positive results (but not null results), an availability bias that comes with the overall greater interest in and emphasis on public service media (perhaps a version of what has been called ‘white hat bias’), and an overwhelming focus in the research on broadcast media and to some extent newspapers over digital media, despite their obvious and increasing importance.

Given the role and remit public service media are given in many countries, the public value it is hoped they will deliver, the adverse consequences some stakeholders fear they have for private sector media, and the estimated annual investment of about €16.6 billion in public service provision across Europe, what we do not know about the impact of public service media, especially in a digital environment, is at least as striking as what we do know.


Pic credit: Paul Townsend Flickr CC licence

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