FCCThe United States is undergoing an overhaul of its media cross-ownership rules, and a recent study spearheaded by the Minority Media & Telecom Council reportedly suggests that liberalizing the current rules would not undermine minority and female ownership. Critics call the study flawed, and are concerned that enabling ownership concentration could lessen the plurality of viewpoints, particularly from these social groups. Nonetheless, the discussion illustrates that stakeholders on both sides of the debate may need to consider whether focusing only on ‘who owns what’ is the most effective approach to promoting viewpoint diversity.

As we previously wrote, the current rules prohibit ownership of both a major newspaper and a major television station in the same media market.  The FCC’s proposed rules, however, could ease that ban by making it easier to own both types of news outlets in the twenty largest U.S. media markets.

The FCC’s proposals have been subject to challenge by critics. Several U.S. representatives argue that there has been insufficient public notice and comment, and that the FCC is proceeding “without any public hearings or discussions on these proposals.” In particular, Democratic Party leaders and minority groups have lamented the declining diversity of female and minority ownership of media outlets, and asked that the FCC examine how its proposals would affect minority and female ownership. Responding to these critics, the FCC delayed implementation in order to further examine the connection between media consolidation and ownership diversity.

The Importance of Diverse Ownership

Policymakers and media scholars have recognized that the diversity in programming rests with the decisions made by the owners of the media distribution outlets. The idea is that diversifying ownership will result in a greater variety of programming content and viewpoints. [1]

Yet this latest study’s overall conclusion is that “cross-media interests’ impact on minority and women broadcast ownership is not sufficiently material to be a material justification for tightening or retaining the [cross-ownership] rules.” In other words, any correlation between cross-ownership concentration and female/minority ownership appears to be negligible. “No harm, No foul,” so to speak.

The study has been criticized as using an inadequate sample. Only 14 owners participated, and the study came down to “an opinion survey of existing media owners,” according to Free Press Policy Director Matt Wood. The study also included a major caveat, pointing out that it only looked at the impact of media consolidation on diverse ownership. It did not, however, examine how the FCC’s media consolidation rules would affect overall viewpoint diversity, localism, or competition.

Constructing a Sound Media Owernership Policy

If the goal is to promote exposure to a wider array of information and viewpoints, then that caveat is an important one to consider in developing a sound media ownership policy. While too much concentration of media power can pose dangers, some studies have shown that media consolidation can potentially enhance viewpoint and content diversity because consolidated outlets may “seek[] to cover all interests rather than simply compete in the most popular fields.”[2] Indeed, one justification for the FCC’s changes is that easing the cross-ownership limits would help newspapers save money by pooling resources, thereby boosting local journalism.

This is why, according to a Media Policy Project Policy Brief, twin goals of diversifying content and diversifying ownership may call for incompatible courses of action. Depending on the goal sought and choice taken, alternative mechanisms, such as content controls or subsidies may be needed. To the extent that the FCC’s proposed rules may undermine ownership diversity, challengers and policymakers may need to consider alternative or complementary mechanisms for promoting minority and female inclusion.

Note: 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.

[1] Napoli, P. (1999) Deconstructing the Diversity PrincipleJournal of Communication. Autumn 1999. Vol 49 no. 4. pp.7-39: 12.

[2] Smith, R. C., & Tambini, D. (2012) Measuring Media Plurality in the United Kingdom: Policy Choices and Regulatory ChallengesJournal of Media Law4(1), 35-63: 38.

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