Breaking the five filters: is a truly objective media outlet possible?
Can there be a truly objective media outlet? Most of us would doubt this possibility. In the past lectures we discussed the propaganda model of media and its five filters: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flack and ideological marginalisation. These filters act as important obstacles that block the media from reaching more objectivity. So are media biased in nature? Are there any means to break these five filters to reduce the bias and improve the medias in our society?
I think these five filters are innate to our media and society, and we cannot eliminate them because capital and power are still the basis of the functioning of our modern society, and these filters are the by-products of the interaction between capital and power and media. However, by carefully designing a system where different sources of capital and political power restrain each other, we can break these filters to the greatest extent, although not completely. I will elaborate more on the purposed measures to break each of these five filters. It should be noted that these measures are highly idealistic, but I believe our society can make progress towards these directions.
Media are under the trend of large-corporation ownership. In lecture Mex mentioned that 6 media giants have taken control of more than 90% of the US medias in the year 2012. As most of the large corporations need to cooperate with political forces to some extent for its business, they will exercise self-censorship on its media to delete those articles considered harmful to its products or its political partners.
To break this filter of ownership, I think the state can take a role in the ownership and subsidy of medias to break the oligopoly ownership of media. The Scandinavian Model described by Hallin and Macinni can provide some useful experiences. For counties in this model, the government uses subsidy to help small media to keep running, thus ensuring an external pluralism of the media market. The state intervention disrupts commercial market and ensures press freedom. Based on this successful experience, the state can use some funds to award those relatively unbiased media to reduce their reliance on its owning corporations. However, the selection process and the amount of subsidy should be transparent to avoid corruption and the increase of political parallelism.
Advertising is the essential business model of media. Media rely on the funding of advertisers to keep running. Advertisers can thus exert their influence on the media by threatening to pull Ads because of the stance of the media. For instance, some pro-Beijing advertisers such as HSBC have pulled down their Ads from Apple Daily to exert pressure on its pro-Democratic stance.
Wikipedia does not rely on advertisements, and it never charges its users. I sometimes think why can’t our media be something like Wikipedia? Especially for those media that rely on online publishing of its reports and do not need to pay for printing, its cost lies mainly on the salary of its staff, just like Wikipedia. Why can’t it rely on the donation of its audiences? This is already partially the case on the Chinese WeChat platform, where audiences can use WeChat Pay to donate to some public accounts because they like their articles or news reports. If this can be realized for some major medias, they can shift part of their reliance on advertisements on the audience. This can increase their incentive to provide high-quality objective news to satisfy its audience, and also reduce their reliance on advertisements, thus breaking the filter of advertising.
The source of news restricts journalists from obtaining first hand news or latest news. Moreover, authorities have the power to block the news sourcing of some press that writes reports against them, as in the case of Trump denied the access of CNN to White House briefing. In China there are increasing new regulations requiring various medias to only cite the report of XinHua News Agency, especially on sensitive topics like those related to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Medias have to compromise to political authorities to keep its channel to the latest news available from the government.
However, this restriction of sourcing has the possibility of being broken in the future due to the developing trend of citizen journalists. When the sourcing of news is expanded to every social media users, journalists and news agencies will gain more ways to obtain accounts of what happened. Videos and photos taken by eyewitness can be easily found on social media nowadays, which lowered the difficulty for professional journalists to gather the information needed. Although this cannot fully substitute the official briefings and reports from the government, this at least provides a new way for media to overcome the difficulty of “reporters cannot be anywhere at anytime”.
Flack is another filter that is closely related to political power. When the media publish some criticisms on established power, there will often be negative responses from both the government and the public. This gives most of the media an incentive of forming alliance with established power and refrain from publishing criticizing contents to gain support from authority and public, thus adding bias to the media.
Personally I think this filter is the most difficult one to be broken, because one cannot expect the authority to welcome criticizing reports, especially in authoritarian societies. To break this filter, first we need the criticizing media to be especially professional. It needs to build its criticism of the established power on the base of verified facts in order to persuade the public to reduce complaints from the public. There also need some laws and regulations to regulate the authority from taking revenge measures to the press, both violently (as in the case of the knife attack on Kevin Lau) and economically.
As for the final filter of ideological marginalization, the media can be biased in that it promotes public fear and hatred to a different ideology group in order to silence the voice critical of elite interests.
External pluralism would be a viable means to break this filter, for the minority ideology group also need their own media to express their voice. As long as this ideology group is not against the law of the society (for instance, propaganda of terrorism is illegal in most countries), it should be given the right of running its own media to introduce its thoughts to the public. This can lead to external pluralism of media and reduce the public’s prejudice towards the minority ideological group because of the increased communication between different groups.
To wrap up, breaking these five filters is very idealistic can is unlikely to be achieved in the short run. However, for each of the filters, there are some viable ways that the whole society can try to make effort to break it. Even if we cannot fully break the five filters, the process of trying to break them itself is already a progress in the professionalisation and democratisation of our media system and our society.