Media Plurality

This is the eighth extract from Where are we now? UK hyperlocal media and community journalism in 2015  a new report commissioned by the Centre for Community Journalism and supported by Cardiff University and Nesta.

Key Points:

●      Plurality of voice matters at a local – as well as national – level.

●      Hyperlocal publishers contribute to media plurality by providing secondary – and sometimes – the only voice in the reporting of local issues.

●      Plurality matters to audiences. Ofcom identified in 2009 that 92 per cent of adults consume local media, with 88 per cent using multiple sources for local news and information.

Policy context

In June 2012 Ofcom published their first report on measuring media plurality,[i] followed by further supplementary advice in October 2012[ii] and a proposed measurement framework for media plurality in March 2015.[iii] This work derived from formal requests by the Secretary of State (Culture, Media and Sport) to explore these issues.

As Ofcom notes: ”Media plurality helps to support a democratic society by ensuring citizens are informed by a diverse range of views and by preventing too much influence over political processes by one media owner or outlet.”[iv]

The regulator also states “the availability, consumption and impact of news media are all relevant measures of plurality,” concluding that “consumption measures, such as volume, reach and how consumers multi-source news, are the most important.”

Ofcom’s media plurality work has covered both online and offline media, given the role that digital channels play in news consumption. 90 per cent of the UK’s adult population is online; and research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has reported that 70 per cent of the UK’s online population consumes news from online sources on a weekly basis.[v]

Local and hyperlocal context

Although much discussion of media plurality focusses on UK-wide media, its sentiments are equally applicable to the devolved nations as well as the local and hyperlocal news arena.

Ofcom – with a predominant focus on media plurality through an ownership – has suggested “for local areas (below the level of a nation), we believe the issues facing local media are more about sustainability than plurality.”[vi] However, a number of advocates for the hyperlocal and local media sector take a different view, arguing this approach may result in vital local issues going unreported.

“…It is at the local level that the vast majority of citizens interact with hospitals, schools, transport systems, the police and elected council representatives,” a recent University of Westminster project exploring Media Power & Plurality has noted.[vii]

“And yet, the direction of travel at local level – towards greater consolidation of media enterprises, relaxation of ownership regimes, lack of support for small media initiatives – has arguably been more severe and more debilitating for democracy than at national level.”

Plurality issues at a local level are inextricably linked with concerns around the democratic deficit, a reality acknowledged in a 2014 report, “Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality” from the Media Standards Trust.[viii]

Local newspapers, they said, were “increasingly unable to perform the role we expect of our Fourth Estate at a local level”[ix] and this gap is not being filled by armchair auditors (as the Government had hoped)[x] or the UK’s new local digital television sector. With the right support, they felt, “hyperlocal sites may become central to maintaining the accountability of public authorities in the future.”

It’s a view shared by the University of London’s Judith Townend, who has argued:

“…both the current activities and aspirations of most hyperlocal sites suggests a potentially major role in compensating for the decline of traditional local media and making a genuine contribution to local plurality, by providing local knowledge, holding local elites accountable and helping local people lobby for change.” [xi]

New entrants, perspectives and voices

The relatively low cost manner in which hyperlocal content can be published has helped to democratise media creation. Anyone can create a Tumblr, Facebook, WordPress or Twitter feed which tackles local issues and provides local news and information.

This enables communities without independent online media such as Turriff in Scotland,[xii] or where traditional media has exited an area – as in Port Talbot –[xiii] to have a voice.

In turn, these low barriers to entry can encourage different voices and communities to be involved in news creation. It is no longer the preserve of trained journalists, local elites or existing media companies. Groups underrepresented in the media industry such as BMEs, people with disabilities of older demographics, can all benefit from this democratisation. The progression route hyperlocal can provide to mainstream media may also help tackle diversity in the wider industry too.[xiv]

A fresh approach

To fully unlock the democratic and human capital potential afforded by UK hyperlocal media will, however, require a different attitude to plurality issues. As the Media Standards Trust has noted:

“Plurality in news and information is generally discussed in negative terms. In other words, policymakers tend to think about how to reduce or break up media monopolies or oligopolies.[xv] Positive plurality, in the sense of encouraging new entrants and helping smaller players to grow, is far less often discussed.”

Yet, as Ofcom has acknowledged, any measurement framework for media plurality needs to consider both “defensive measures which prevent actions taking place that would reduce media plurality… and mechanisms to promote media plurality…”

Positive plurality, in this sense, can be derived at by ensuring that hyperlocal outlets can access competitive funding pots – such as the local TV subsidy – as well as technical support from Facebook, Google and other technological gatekeepers.

To do this, as the Carnegie UK Trust has said,[xvi] Ofcom’s assessment of the media market must include hyperlocal outlets in their analysis of media availability, consumption, and impact. Ofcom’s own research has consistently shown there is a small, but growing audience for these local news and information channels. Overlooking this audience in any assessment framework therefore risks providing an incomplete picture and further reducing sector visibility.

Recommendations

7.1  Media plurality needs to be mapped at a local, as well as regional and national level to ensure diversity of voice and ownership.

7.2  Given the popularity of hyperlocal services we encourage Ofcom to include these in any media plurality framework.

7.3  Funding may be needed to encourage new voices and market entrants in order to preserve, or facilitate greater plurality at a local level.

[i] http://media.ofcom.org.uk/news/2012/ofcom-publishes-report-on-measuring-media-plurality/

[ii] http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/measuring-plurality/advice/

[iii] http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/media-plurality-framework/

[iv] http://media.ofcom.org.uk/news/2012/ofcom-publishes-report-on-measuring-media-plurality/

[v] http://www.digitalnewsreport.org/survey/2015/united-kingdom-2015/

[vi] http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/consultations/measuring-plurality/letters/advice.pdf (Pg 8)

[vii] http://www.mediaplurality.com/local-and-hyperlocal/

[viii] http://mediastandardstrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Positive-Plurality-policy-paper-9-10-14.pdf

[ix] http://mediastandardstrust.org/mst-news/addressing-the-democratic-deficit-in-local-news-through-positive-plurality/

[x] https://theodi.org/blog/guest-blog-where-are-armchair-auditors

[xi] http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/media-power-and-plurality-steven-barnett/?K=9781137522832

[xii] Case Study: My Turriff, Carnegie UK Trust case study report (forthcoming publication)

[xiii] http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2012/06/22/hyperlocal-voices-rachel-howells-port-talbot-magnet/

[xiv] The Creative Media Workforce Survey 2014 Summary Report reported “5% of the workforce stated that they have a disability. This figure has remained constant since 2003 and is significantly lower than the 11% across the wider UK working population.” It also reported that “52% of the workforce are aged over 35, this compares to 64% of the UK working population” and that “14% of the workforce attended an independent/ fee-paying school, double the proportion of the UK population (7%).” http://creativeskillset.org/assets/0001/0465/Creative_Skillset_Creative_Media_Workforce_Survey_2014.pdf

[xv] See, for example, the House of Lords Communications Committee 2014 report on Media Plurality, HL Paper 120, February 2014 http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldcomm/120/120.pdf

[xvi] http://www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/CMSPages/GetFile.aspx?guid=5f18cb2f-93d7-4a15-bede-bf07fefa7ede

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