BLOG 4: Public Media in the Community
Public media has been the oft-neglected sibling of the massive, private enterprises, underfunded and largely ignored by the public who it dutifully serves. This may make it seem like there would be little or no effect if public media simply stopped existing – since we’re not using it now, obviously we could keep being properly informed without it. However, despite its relative obscurity in the media ocean, public media is not only essential to the community in and of itself, but it is also essential to the entire media environment by playing an important role in keeping the corporate media honest, or at least keeping it from travelling audaciously far beyond honesty. Public media is necessary for a community to be well informed, because it levels the field, in a sense, and keeps pressure on all other media to provide the people with accurate and relevant information.
A poll from savethenews.org shows that 71% of respondents listened to NPR, 79% read the news online, and 58% used nonprofit news sources. These numbers are sure to grow in the future as the definition of public media continues to expand. Where we once had perhaps one nation public broadcasting station and a handful of low-power FM stations and non-profit newspapers here and there, now we are getting massive free, public resources like wikipedia.org, wikileaks.org, and all of the thousands of newspapers, radio stations, and other organizations that publish free information online. Freepress.net states that “soon any website or blog could have the reach of a TV or radio station, presenting a potentially revolutionary new outlet for public media.” While this type of information is likely more susceptible to incorrect or biased information than a professional, non-profit journalism organization, it is still being produced to serve the needs of the public instead of commercial interests, and thus is important in keeping the community properly informed. More than ever in our digital society, public media will have an essential role in our society.
So why do we need public media? Why can’t commercial media fulfill the same role, or why can’t citizens just inform themselves? Well, we need the media because it is a vastly more efficient means of gathering information; no one has time to get the information they need if they have to seek out every story gather and check facts to learn anything about their community and their world. It makes sense to have a few people dedicated toward gathering, analyzing, reporting, and filtering data to reach the audience that needs it. However, when that job is left to commercial entities without any counterbalance to keep them in line, it’s very easy to let their financial interests take over. Commercial businesses are based on capitalism; their driving force is to continually increase profit, and after a point, the only way to increase profit involves measures that are unethical or hurt others. And when news stations and other media are owned by corporate conglomerates, as so many are now: Most mega-corporations are made up of hundreds of media outlets (television stations, books, magazines, record labels) as well as giant food brands, toys, pet products, and a slew of different companies. When media companies have such financial ties to so many different products and services, it’s nearly inevitable that they will run into a conflict of interest. For a perfect example of this, think of the Florida Fox News reporters who tried to do an exposé on an artificial growth hormone (rBGH) that was being found in cow’s milk, only to have their story killed by the station because rBGH was produced by their sponsor – Monsanto. The reporters lost their jobs when they refused to change their story to reflect Monsanto in a positive light (see the full story at http://www.cqs.com/rbgh.htm). Without the all-too-tempting allure that for-profit companies can succumb to, public media are in a much better position to provide the community with what they need to be properly informed. Further, this relative objectivity allows them to serve as a watchdog for the commercial media sector, to ensure that they are not falsifying data or otherwise misleading the public. The increase of information ability, thanks to the internet, has afforded public media a massively powerful new watchdog role – just think of the impact that Wikileaks has had on the public and private media, not to mention political watchdog and fact-check groups on the internet that can call out politicians and candidates almost instantaneously if they make false claims (think Sarah Palin quotes and their immediate rebuke on the internet). According to the savethenews.org poll, 76% of people believe that public media is higher in quality than private media, and 57% believe that conflicts of interest are stronger in private media.
While public media is not perfect, of course, and may still show biases and conflicts of interest, their lack of commercial investment allows them much greater freedom to seek objectivity, and also allows them to tackle subjects that are not as interesting or sexy as what the commercial media typically focuses on. Since they do not suffer as much from the pressure of reaching a certain amount of viewers or readers to keep their sponsorship, they are able to pursue scientific projects and other topics that are important to the community, while maintaining objectivity and keeping the commercial media from taking advantage of the public. Therefore, public media is truly necessary for a community to be properly informed.