It’s not news to say that our consumption of media has changed dramatically in the 21st century. Perhaps it’s 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 20th century, the media was controlled by a few large players and they had tremendous influence on public opinion. This wasn’t 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.
But with the dawn of the internet, I could read the Manchester Guardian as easily as my local newspaper. It seemed that finally there was true freedom of information.
The problem became that there was too much information, some of which was credible and much that was not.
Then came the rise of tech giants that would sell internet 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 that didn’t seem to be bound by these constraints.
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 hasn’t been good for democracy. We’ve seen local newspapers cut their staff and even close their doors. This resulted in a lack of information about our 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 investigations by 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’s not to make the world a better, more just and more equitable place; those are the expressed ideals of democratic governments.
In the 20th century, in response to inadequacies in privatized media, democracies around the world began investing in state-sponsored corporations like the BBC, CBC and Deutsche Welle. These organizations 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’s 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.
How do we prevent the polarization we’ve 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 haven’t served us well and we can’t 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’re in uncharted territory and the solutions won’t be easy to find. We’re not alone, however. Every country in the world faces similar challenges.
Respectful and informed discussion is the heart of democracy. They are also the principles that will help us find the solutions we need to improve our media and protect our democracy.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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