Media Pluralism Monitor Unveiled

How – if at all – is it possible to objectively measure media pluralism? The question was provisionally answered on 8 June, 2009, when a scientific consortium spearheaded by the University of Leuven’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Law & ICT (ICRI) discussed the outcome its 18-month study on the subject with stakeholders in Brussels. On request of the European Commission’s Directorate-General Information Society and Media (DG INFSO), the multi-national and multi-disciplinary team has developed indicators for media pluralism under a risk-based approach. I have explored the study’s background in a series of articles last year.

So how does it work? Basically, it all boils down to something as mundane as an Excel spreadsheet that is available for download alongside an explanatory report and a user manual. The researchers presented a set of 166 criteria they determined to be relevant factors impacting media pluralism. The criteria are grouped into three main categories, economic, legal, and socio-demographic, and further sorted by application areas: political, cultural and geographical variety, ownership structures, and content.

Next, the study authors developed quantitative measurements for each indicator. In some cases, such measurements are almost as simple as yes or no, while most criteria are gauged by percentages or other figures. For instance, a question such as “Are anti-concentration regulations in place?” can be answered directly, yet must be further qualified to be meaningful: the respective rules may be in place and working well, may be in place but be ineffective, etc. On the other hand, a question like “What is the ratio of current affairs over entertainment on TV?” can be answered with a finite percentage, based on programme statistics.

In a third step, the researchers defined thresholds for each gauge to evaluate their respective pluralistic value and to calculate traffic-light-style results. For example, where factual content exceeds 25 percent of total TV, the country will get a green light, where it is lower than 10 percent, a red light is shown, and the range in between merits an orange alert.

But, of course, no single indicator has the potential to really describe the plurality of any given media landscape. If all TV stations are owned and controlled by one person or political party, a multiplicity of independent quality newspapers can make up for this, and so on. Therefore, the measurements of all individual indicators are compiled into summaries describing the general state of pluralism in a given country.

I am, of course, simplifying what is in reality quite complex and required a major effort by about two dozen specialists. The user manual alone is 360 pages long, and describes in detail why certain indicators were selected and by which rationale they are measured.

Implementing the system would for the first time ever allow European citizens to actually compare the state of the media in their countries by a common yardstick. No wonder this makes some politicians and media entrepreneurs nervous.

And, not surprisingly, the study’s approach has many inherent problems. One issue is that it blends different domains as well as different measurement methods and thus tends to compare apples with oranges. Primarily, media pluralism and the public sphere are associated with factual information, with journalism and the formation of political opinion. Consequently, the Media Pluralism Monitor mainly takes the immediately pertinent factors into account, such as political bias of publications, audience participation, diversity of sources, etc.

But in the vein of the EU’s own Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD), which is, among other things, supposed to promote the domestic European media economy, the study also throws entertainment into the mix. Yet, while many entertainment programmes arguably clearly have a public value, most of them just do not. It remains unclear under which premises entertainment effectively contributes to media pluralism. One stakeholder scoffed: “I couldn’t care less about a Danish movie on TV after midnight.”

This lack of conceptual clarity is, however, not the fault of the contributors to this study, but merely reflects a general deficit in media sciences, which have yet to reflect systematically on the role of culture and entertainment for public value, politics and the opinion ecosystem. Team member Robert Picard, a renowned media economist from Jönköping International Business School, acknowledged a related shortcoming of the study when he said that it intentionally did not address content quality because there simply was no dependable, scientifically agreed standard definition of it available.

Other stakeholder criticism was directed at the built-in fuzziness of many of the 166 indicators. How do you determine whether, for instance, regulations for diversity in public broadcasting are successfully implemented? Or whether a self-regulatory body in the printed media performs well? How do you decide which kind of political influence on media outlets are undue and not sufficiently warded off by owners or editorial staff? And could not commercial interest entail an adequate variety of content even in oligopolistic markets rather than making it anti-pluralistic by default? Criteria like these tend to elude objective measurability and require informed judgements, which will eventually turn out to be subjective no matter what.

In order to evaluate this, a conference participant suggested that the Media Pluralism Monitor be tested on one country and that two independent groups of experts collect and fill in the data. If both groups came to roughly the same result – fine. If the outcomes were very different, the methodology would, obviously, need to be revised.

However, even if that kind of test failed, it would not at all devaluate this Media Pluralism Monitor. It is the first and already quite convincing attempt to consolidate a broad range of economic, legal, and social indicators. So far, these disciplines are mostly addressed separately – by legislators as well as scientists – thus making for unsatisfactory and sometimes even contradictory political approaches on national and European levels. Just think of competition policy as opposed to trade policy: While the former might not allow big media companies to merge, the latter might actually promote the formation of larger players in order to achieve a better position on the international market.

Secondly and no less important, the Media Pluralism Monitor has eventually developed a set of criteria sufficiently universal to be applied to all 27 different media landscapes in the European Union and beyond. Most probably some findings would be imprecise or debatable, but implementing the system would for the first time ever allow European citizens to actually compare the state of the media in their countries by a common yardstick. No wonder this makes some politicians and media entrepreneurs nervous. At the Brussels meeting, a number of the usual suspects already showed the predictable defence reflexes.

Project leader Peggy Valcke insisted that, however, the traffic light colours must not be interpreted as immediate triggers for political action in the respective area. The purpose of the Media Pluralism Monitor is initially just that: monitoring. It is then up to society and the political sphere to evaluate the results and to discuss any measures to be derived from them. And contrary to the concerns of publishers and broadcasters, this process can go either way: It may call for additional regulation or public initiatives, but it may also render existing regulations obsolete.

Unfortunately, at the European level, the Media Pluralism Monitor will now be put on hold until the next Commission takes office. DG INFSO’s Media Task Force already has further plans at the ready. Hopefully, the new Commission will continue to support the ongoing development and practical application of this tool.

Addendum 18 October 2013: The European Commission asked the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom to implement a pilot of the Media Pluralism Monitor.