Public Media and Political Independence: Lessons for the Future of Journalism from Around the World

We live in paradoxical times. The core institutions and systems that have supported journalism in America for decades are weathering a perfect storm of challenges that have undercut our country’s longstanding information infrastructure. At the same time, a new generation of news and journalism organizations is driving a renaissance in local reporting and reinvigorating our media system.

This shifting media landscape has inspired a range of important reports and initiatives designed to help chart a course toward stronger journalism and media in America. In report after report, America’s public and noncommercial media sector has been held up as a core component of the future of hard-hitting, accountability journalism.

Although U.S. public broadcasting has accomplished much in the 40 years since its founding, today there is a growing sense that we can and must do better. In the global context, our public media system’s independent civic mission is woefully underfunded: U.S. per capita public spending is less than $4, far less than the $30 to $134 per capita for the 14 countries examined in this study. And as the recent efforts by politicians to punish NPR for its firing of news analyst Juan Williams suggest, public media in America possess little autonomy from direct political pressure.

How can public media be adequately funded and protected from partisan political meddling? These decisions do not need to be made in a vacuum. The lessons of other democratic nations, many of whose public media systems have been around long before American public broadcasting, are instructive.

In this report, we survey the concrete ways that a cross-section of democratic nation-states around the world fund and protect the autonomy of public media. In the 14 nations examined in this study, public media independence and democratic functioning are promoted through a variety of means.

  1. First, in several countries, funding is established for multiyear periods, thus lessening the capacity of government to directly link funding to either approval or disapproval of programming.  
  2. Second, public media seem to be strongest when citizens feel that media are responsive to them rather than to politicians or advertisers (i.e., when they are truly “public”). Funding structures and oversight organizations that create a direct link between public media and their audiences foster citizen engagement, involvement and accountability.
  3. Third, the legal and administrative charters establishing public broadcasters work to assure that public funds are spent in the public interest — providing diverse, high-quality news and other content. At the same time, these charters and related media laws restrict the capacity of governments to exert influence over content in a partisan direction.
  4. Fourth, public agencies, administrative boards, and/or trusts of one type or another exist in all countries to serve as a buffer between broadcasters and the government in power. The independence of such agencies, boards and trusts is bolstered through a variety of means and by creating an “arms-length” institutional relationship between the public broadcaster and government that prevents partisan political interference or meddling.

As a result of these policies, not only have public broadcasters continued to provide high-quality, diverse programming, they have also been responsible for airing critical investigations of government performance. According to a growing body of scholarly research, public broadcasters across Western Europe and other democracies examined in this study provide more and higher quality public affairs programming and a greater diversity of genres and unique perspectives than their commercial counterparts. Publicly subsidized newspapers are just as critical of government as their advertising-subsidized competitors, if not more so. 

In sum, even as public media face new challenges and difficulties, this report establishes the continuing international viability, indeed vitality, of the public service model and provides a range of policy prescriptions, from funding mechanisms to citizen engagement and governance structures, for the United States as it considers the role of public and noncommercial media as a key part of responding to the news and information needs of society.

While it is unlikely that the United States would adopt any of these models directly, the report quite clearly demonstrates that public service broadcasters play an important civic role in many countries, remedying the classic market failure in the production of quality, independent journalism. The models herein should be considered a starting point for discussion, with the understanding that each would have to be modified for the American media and political context.

Click here to download the entire report

About the authors

Rodney Benson is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Benson’s research comparing the U.S. and French press was recently featured in the Columbia Journalism Review. He has written numerous articles on U.S. and European news media. His book, Framing Immigration: How the French and American Media Shape Public Debate, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Matthew Powers is a PhD candidate at New York University in the department of Media, Culture and Communication. His research interests include the sociology of news, comparative media and political communication. 


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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good