Here are the facts: Ninety percent of the United States’ media is controlled by five media conglomerates. In 2016, five companies owned an estimated 37% of all full-power local TV stations in the country. Some journalists have spoken out about what these statistics may imply.
Welcome to the world of media ownership and commercial influences. Let’s dive in.
Turkey is not at the top of any lists praising nations with a free press. The truth is, the issue of media ownership is one of the main contributing factors. Free Press Unlimited reports, “In Turkey, media ownership is highly concentrated, with a few major private holding companies subtly applying pressure on editors and journalists at their outlets to refrain from coverage that could harm their broader business interests, including criticism of the government or potential advertiser.” If that sounds scary, it’s because it is. The same article reports that the consequences of this pattern of media ownership are “biased, unprofessional, and in extreme cases propagandistic journalism.”
The United States prides itself in our constitutional right to a free press, so when we hear of cases like that of Turkey, we often declare it a foreign issue. Perhaps a little too eagerly, because the same threats are closer to home than we might think.
If you don’t believe me, believe the research. Specifically, research conducted by Martin Gilens and Craig Hertzman in 2000. Their objective was to “To assess the influence of corporate owners’ financial interests on the content of the news,” by focusing “on a specific aspect of the 1996 Telecommunications bill that has clear implications for the corporate owners of mass media: the loosening of TV station ownership caps.” They wanted to see whether the reporting in newspapers varied depending on whether their owners stood to benefit from the loosened restrictions.
You guessed it. Newspapers owned by those who would benefit from the loosened restrictions “offered their leaders favorable coverage of the proposed changes, with positive consequences outnumbering negative consequences by over two to one.” But newspapers owned by those on the other side of the issue shared unfavorable coverage, with “negative consequences appearing over three times as often as positive consequences.” In short, the coverage of the issue was done in such a way to further the interests of the media owners. The researchers shared the conclusion that “As more and more media outlets come under the control of fewer and fewer corporate owners, the potential for conflicts of interest increases.”
During his most recent bid for the presidency, Bernie Sanders made these conflicts of interest a key issue. He claimed that the country is suffering from a lack of real journalism because media outlets are “being gutted by the same forces of greed that are pillaging our economy.” And Sanders wasn’t afraid to name names: “News outlets owned by Disney and Jeff Bezos may happily tout Disney films and Bezos’s plans for space exploration, but we cannot count on them to consistently and aggressively cover workers’ fight for better wages at Disney- or Bezos-controlled companies. In fact, in one instance, we saw that The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, tried to punish a reporter because he spoke out for better wages at the newspaper.” While Sanders may be one of loudest voices of concern, he certainly isn’t the only one speaking up.
“As a journalist who has worked both inside and outside of establishment media, I see influence as embedded in a corporate media culture rather than in isolated cases of CEO dictates. It happens in little ways, such as how an interviewer frames a question, and in big ways, like the decision to exclude a topic, a person or a group of people from the airwaves…the press’ mission is to inform the citizenry and flag abuses to power, not promote special interests. When citizens blind themselves to a news organization’s corporate entanglements, and trust the outlet to be truthful anyway, it is, to put it mildly, extraordinarily naïve.”
While we, the people, may not be able to purchase media outlets to protect the sanctity of free press, there are other ways we can combat the issue. Among them are knowing where you news is coming from, being deliberate about the sources you use, and practicing media literacy, which has been deemed “an essential life skill for the 21st century.”