Bad News for Democracy: The Decline of Independent Media
News outlets criminalized for critical reporting. Journalists hounded on social media, or even killed, for speaking truth to power. Cash-strapped newsrooms scraping by with a skeleton staff. This is current state of our global free press in the wake of multiple political and financial assaults.
Warnings that independent media, and along with them democracy itself, are suffering ‘death by a thousand cuts’ are growing louder. Authoritarian forces have in recent years launched bold assaults against press freedom, targeting journalists and independent media that report on their wrongdoing.
Demagogues no longer need traditional media to spread their messages. Social media, with its outrage-hungry algorithms, will amplify malicious lies and hate with little contextualization. Reasoned debate and political accountability — so vital for democracy — are shut out of the discourse.
Economic threats to independent journalism are just as dire. Over two decades, advertising revenues that once sustained a free press have tumbled as print outlets migrated online. COVID only quickened the decline, with newspapers losing around US $30 billion in revenue in 2020 alone.
Broadcast media fared little better. In the pandemic, 40% of media outlets surveyed from around the world reported revenue losses of more than 50%, prompting some to speak of a “media extinction event.” Since then, inflation and soaring costs have squeezed outlets even harder.
The results have been devastating. Just 13 percent of the world’s population has access to a free press, Freedom House estimates. Elsewhere, in the news deserts beyond, people are forced to navigate a murky world of rumor, conspiracy, and pseudo-science.
The influence of social media, especially TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, continues to grow. On these and other platforms, algorithms optimized for engagement quickly hook users interested in current affairs — elections, vaccines, conflict, or climate change — onto a diet of lies and conspiracies.
Seeping into the vacuum left by declining media is malicious content made to look like news. Bank-rolled by undemocratic forces, this content is diametrically opposed to the public interest. Instead, the bad actors behind it fuel polarization, instability, and extremism to propel despots to power.
We already know what happens next. Democracy falters as corruption and ignorance thrive. Ill-informed voters can’t select candidates to act in their best interest. They fall for disinformation that warps priorities and makes scapegoats of outsiders. Reform and development fall by the wayside.
In this way, our information ecosystem is becoming increasingly polluted. Rampant disinformation is causing real harm to our societies. Malicious lies spread online are costing countless lives in the pandemic, fueling deadly conflicts around the world, and undermining climate action.
The antidote to this is verified information. Ethical reporters have the skills to restore balance, and manage and prevent the poison flooding our social media feeds. They can offer a vital service: accurate, objective, and reliable information about the issues that matter.
Many are seeking a long-term future for such journalism. One group, the International Fund for Public Interest Media, IFPIM, co-chaired by journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, is working on a global fund to significantly increase support to independent media to enable their development, sustainability and independence — especially in resource-poor and fragile settings.
The discussion is far from over. We must get this right — democracy is on the line. Real public debate relies on the facts, told clearly, and reported ethically and independently. We can’t expect to nurture engaged citizens without free journalists holding power to account. Their voices are silenced at our peril.