Media giants don't always lead to less diverse content

August 09, 2004

MADISON -- Just because a big company owns all the media outlets in town doesn't necessarily mean newspapers and broadcast stations will look and sound alike, according to a review of the research in this area published in the summer issue of the journal Contexts.

While media consolidation does have adverse effects, as described in a literature review, the reduction in content diversity does not appear to be one of them. In fact, the research suggests that media content is no less diverse than it was before the increase in consolidation of ownership.

Many people assume that diversity of ownership leads to diversity in news and entertainment content and, conversely, that limited ownership essentially closes the marketplace of ideas, where different viewpoints are exchanged and shared, says Pearl Latteier, a co-author and a graduate student in communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But as the literature review by Latteier and University of San Francisco sociology professor Joshua Gamson suggests, these scenarios aren't necessarily true.

Critics of media conglomeration are concerned, for example, that nationally owned stations, newspapers or magazines focus less on local news, limiting diversity of coverage. However, the recent review of research in this area shows that the amount of local content actually can increase.

For example, newspapers in Florida and Arkansas that were bought by the Gannett Company expanded their coverage of local events, though often in the form of disaster and crime stories. Another study found that nationally owned television stations whose parent company also owns a newspaper tended to carry more local content.

"Critics of media consolidation fear that newspapers owned by a big conglomerate will rely on national wire services at the expense of local news," says Latteier. "But the research suggests that this is not always true."

In addition, conglomerates have created niche markets that provide information of interest to particular demographic groups, write the authors. The Black Entertainment Television station, the People en Espanol magazine and the television show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" all are owned by media giants, including Viacom, Time Warner AOL and NBC.

"A big conglomerate doesn't need to compete with itself, so it may develop programming aimed at more diverse audiences," says Latteier. "A company that owns three television stations in a single city, for example, will be more profitable if it airs different content on each station, because it will draw different viewers to each channel."

But the findings show that media giants wanting to turn a profit also can influence the material and perspective presented in media. Latteier says that a television show owned by a company that also owned a tobacco company presented a pro-tobacco bias, and a news program owned by the Walt Disney Company devoted a two-hour show to the Orlando theme park's anniversary.

"With more media conglomerations, the fear is that the values presented will be consistent with the values of big business, that a capitalistic sensibility will come through," says Latteier. "This is definitely happening. But beyond this kind of self-interested spin, it's not clear that ownership concentration has a big effect on the diversity of ideas presented."

From the review of studies examining the effects of large media companies on diversity in programming, ideas and audiences, the researchers offer one strong conclusion: The issue is much more complex than simply assuming limited ownership of media leads to limited coverage. In other words, there is no predictable outcome.

Latteier says that although big companies continue to buy smaller media outlets, the situation isn't so bleak as critics contend. "The media giants aren't uniformly devouring diversity," she says. "The challenge for media activists will be to trade in their blanket assumption about consolidation for a more nuanced view."
-end-


University of Wisconsin-Madison

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