Philip NapoliAs a sneak preview of his talk at the upcoming Media Power & Plurality conference in London, Philip Napoli of the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information shares a lesson learned about what not to do in plurality policy making from the US. 

In the United States, the issue of plurality/diversity in media is, at this point, represented in the media policy realm almost exclusively by the media ownership regulations that are in place.  While many of these regulations have been relaxed or eliminated over the years, those that remain focus primarily on multiple ownership and cross-ownership of traditional media outlets (newspapers, television stations, radio stations) at the local level.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is required to re-evaluate these regulations every four years (ironically, it is sometimes the case that one re-evaluation isn’t fully completed before it is time for the next one to begin).  And, in fact, the latest iteration of the media ownership review is just beginning. I’d like to focus on this process, as I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in each iteration of it since 2003 in a variety of capacities, including: conducting research utilized by public interest organizations engaged in the proceeding; serving as a peer reviewer for the FCC for a study that they commissioned; and providing testimony to the U.S. Senate and the FCC.  So I’ve had some interesting vantage points from which to observe this process as it has played out every four years, particularly in relation to the role that research plays in the process

And if there has been one thing that has struck me about this process, it is that, from a research standpoint, every four years the media ownership proceeding begins with very little connection to the previous media ownership proceeding. That is, the questions of which research questions will be investigated, how they will be investigated, and by whom they will be investigated, are asked anew every four years, with no effort to maintain any meaningful continuity or consistency across proceedings. Individual studies addressing specific questions are conducted one year, and then abandoned in subsequent years for different studies investigating different questions, and employing different data and methods.

For instance, an effort to develop a market-level Diversity Index was employed for one ownership proceeding, but was invalidated by the courts for lacking the necessary rigor, and then was abandoned by the FCC, never to be corrected or improved and redeployed in subsequent proceedings. Some proceedings have involved studies of the relationship between cross-ownership and the ideological slant of local television news, and the impact of the relaxation of certain rules on minority and female broadcast ownership. Other proceedings have not addressed these issues, but instead provided analyses the relationship between ownership structures in local markets and civic engagement and of the availability of local news and information online.

It is as if every four years the wheel gets reinvented. Consequently, there has been no meaningful, systematic accumulation of longitudinal data and research findings. From a research standpoint, this is particularly frustrating, as it represents a waste of a very valuable opportunity that arises from the fact that this is a quadrennial proceeding. In theory, every four years the FCC has the opportunity to systematically build upon the knowledge base of the previous proceeding in ways that would facilitate potentially valuable comparative analyses across time periods and across markets; and that would allow for the systematic tracking of the impact of specific policy decisions on media diversity and pluralism. But instead, every ownership proceeding begins almost as if it is the first ownership proceeding, with no meaningful continuity with the empirical record that was established for the previous proceeding.

Why this is the case has to do with the extent to which research has become a highly politicized element of the media policymaking process. Desired policy outcomes tend to drive the research questions that are asked, the methods and data that are employed, and the selection of the researchers who conduct the analyses. Consequently, over the past decade and a half we have seen a number of fairly egregious suppressions, abuses, and manipulations of policy research (something that I am chronicling in an ongoing book project).

And so, as the policy objectives shift with each FCC administration, so too do the research objectives and approaches that underlie each ownership proceeding. As a result, the kind of robust, systematic, longitudinal body of knowledge about the effects of various policy, marketplace, or ownership changes on the diversity of sources, content, and viewpoints available to media audiences that should be a primary outcome of these quadrennial media ownership proceedings is, unfortunately, lacking.

Philip Napoli will be speaking at the free Media Power and Plurality conference in London on 2 May. This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.