Media changes needed to save democracy

It is not news to say that our consumption of media has changed dramatically in the 21stcentury. Perhaps it is time to take a step back and look objectively at the impact of these changes and begin thinking about how our media can be improved.

For most of the 20thcentury, a few large players controlled the media and they had tremendous influence on public opinion. This was not always a good thing. It could be hard to get information on important issues unless the powers that be deemed they were worthy of coverage.  

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With the dawn of the internet, I could read the Manchester Guardian as easily as my own local newspaper. It seemed that finally there was true freedom of information.

The problem became the fact that there was too much information, some of which was credible and much of that was not.

Then came the rise of tech giants who would sell online exposure to the highest bidder. Whereas once media was tempered by slander and libel laws, as well as a certain level of journalistic integrity, media was now controlled by corporations which did not have these restraints.  

At the same time, we saw cuts to funding for state-sponsored media in democratic countries resulting in less accountability to voters and greater influence from corporate sponsors.

The impact of these changes has not been good for democracy. We have seen local newspapers cut their staffs and even close their doors.  This resulted in a lack of information about our own communities and city governments, leading to a loss of a sense of commonality and social cohesion.

In essence, our new reliance on tech giants to supply us with information has resulted in fake news, clickbait, and polarized societies.  There are even ongoing investigations for the International Court of Justice regarding the accountability of social media corporations in the Rohingya Genocide.  

None of this should be surprising. The goal of corporate tech giants is to maximize short-term profitability for the sake of their investors. It is not to make the world a better, more just and more equitable place.   Those are the expressed ideals of democratic governments.

In the 20thcentury, in response to inadequacies in privatized media democracies around the world began investing in state-sponsored corporations like the BBC, CBC and Deutsche Welle, organizations that were accountable to voters, not to shareholders.

What was the impact of this investment? According to research, countries with well-funded public broadcasters have higher levels of social trust and cohesion and are less susceptible to extremism. We tend to be better informed and are more likely to express our differences in respectful dialogue.  

It should also be noted that there is a significant difference between state-controlled media and state-sponsored media. Everyone in Zaire, for example, knew that Tele-Zaire was a mouthpiece for the Mobutu dictatorship, not an institution that encouraged informed and meaningful dialogue.

What then do we need to do to prevent the polarization we have seen in countries like Myanmar and the United States? We need to invest in our democracy by investing in our media. The austerity measures since the 1980s have not served us well and we can not do what we did before the age of the internet. Because the way we access media has completely changed, we also need to allow more tax dollars to flow into local media.

We are in uncharted territory and the solutions will not be easy to find.  We are not alone, however. Every country in the world is facing similar challenges.  

Respectful and informed discussion is the heart of democracy and they are also the principles that will help us find the solutions we need to improve our media and protect our democracy. 

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