‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ reads the tagline of the Washington Post. But would this paper, owned by Jeff Bezos, indeed provide unbiased reporting on Amazon – one of the world’s biggest corporates? This is a general trend in democracies around the globe, where the proverbial fourth pillar is crumbling.
As regional outlets, choked for funds, are shutting down, we are being forced to turn our attention to the mainstream media, which is falling into the hands of exploitative corporations or political honchos. The control of media houses by big businesses is not entirely new. However, it now carries a lot more danger than it did in the past.
With the rise of authoritarian governments that collude with big businesses, it has become all the more critical that the media acts as a watchdog authority. However, with the direction in which media ownership is headed, it seems unlikely that it will continue to pose challenging questions to magnates and the government.
In the US, six companies control most media outlets. The situation is similar in India, where a few business groups and politicians own most of the media. A big reason for this has been the rise of free news sources on the internet and social media, which has led to a steady decline in readership of traditional media outlets, choking off funds and forcing many smaller outlets out of business.
The consolidation of media outlets into a few hands has been made worse by cross-media ownership, wherein media groups own multiple forms of media.
Today, most big media groups in India own a broadcasting channel and a newspaper and boast a massive online presence with their websites and social media sites. This means that one group can often be controlling all the forms of media an individual consumes, especially in regional languages where there is a lack of choice within mediums.
The most apparent impact of the consolidation of ownership is the biases that emerge within reporting. Publications work towards furthering the interests of their owners which harms discourse around the stories the newspaper is covering.
When politicians own the outlets, there’s minimal questioning of the political party that the owners are a part of. This is also true in the case of outlets that are owned by business groups, especially those that have interests in other industries.
Magnates are usually backed by politicians, who are not checked by these publications. Biased coverage for politicians in the news has been well analysed. A paper by Benjamin Page in the University of Chicago press analysed 60 Senatorial campaigns in the US and found that, overwhelmingly, the coverage for candidates who were supported in the paper’s editorial pages also got favourable news coverage in the rest of the paper.
In many cases, the biases extend into outright suppression of news stories that could be harmful to the government. This often takes place as a quid pro quo where a media outlet buries a story that is harmful to the government and in return the government enacts a policy that helps one of the businesses the outlet’s owner controls.
As governments across the world are becoming more authoritarian, the role of the media as watchdog organisations is crucial. Good journalism can lead to public pressure that forces the government to rethink and rework its policies.
However, with media ownership consolidated in a few hands, it is unlikely that it will ask the questions that are needed of it. As it stands, the fourth pillar in our democracy is crumbling, and the government and tycoons have aided its decline. Only we, as vocal citizens, can save the media from an ugly death.