This post analyzes the deterioration of “Free Press” in the world and questions whether “Foxification” of 24-hour news contributes to the Free Press issues in democratic countries.
According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2009 report, the world has experienced yet another year of decline in press freedoms. Unfortunately, this is now the seventh year in a row that press freedoms have moved in a negative direction. The main areas of concern are East Asia, the former Soviet Union, and North Africa as evidenced by this Map of Press Freedom – 2009 chart.
Further, the 2009 report suggests that Not Free Press countries came in at 33%, Partly Free at 31%, and Free Press nations at 36%; in contrast with 2002, where Not Free Press countries were at 32.8%, Partly Free at 26.9%, and Free Press nations at 40.3% (Karlekar, 2009, p. 1). Of the entire world inhabitants, only 17% live in countries with a Free Press, 41% in Partly Free, and 42% in Not Free Press zones (Karlekar, 2009, p. 1). Sadly, several open and democratic countries fell from the Free Press category to Partly Free, they include Israel, Italy, and Hong Kong (Karlekar, 2009, p. 1). There were actually twice as many losses in the Free Press arena as there were gains. Most troubling is the fact that “repressive legislation against journalists and media outlets is the key factor behind global declines, as are the persistent threat of physical harassment and attacks against reporters” (Karlekar, 2009, p. 1).
In light of that, let’s take a look at Gary Langer’s (2009) ABC News/Washington Post Poll on U.S. Views of Islam. According to Langer, 48% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Islam and 55% of Americans admit they lack a basic understanding of Islam (Langer, 2009). Most startling are the political and ideological variances where two-thirds of moderates and liberals see Islam as peaceful; in sharp contrast, only 26% of conservatives and just 33% of Republicans see the faith in a favorable light (Langer, 2009). How is it that so many more moderates/liberals see Islam as a peaceful religion versus conservatives/Republicans? Maybe it has to do with perceptions. That which you perceive, you tend to believe.
With freedom of the press in decline, this does not bode well for the future when it comes to conceptions and misconceptions. Obviously, Langer’s poll shows the varying degree of opinion in the United States. But, in the case of Islam who is misinformed, the moderates/liberals or the conservatives/Republicans? According to Kull (2002), only one forth of Americans realize that a majority of nations are more sympathetic to the Palestinian side. In fact, only one out of three people were aware that more Palestinians have died in the conflict than Israelis. Why are two-thirds of Americans ignorant of this fact? Is it because they are feeding on a source of news that doesn’t tell the “rest of the story”?
Cushion and Lewis (2009), suggested that network and cable operators are falling prey to the ‘Fox effect‘ in hopes of commercial success with more sensational coverage and a slant towards partisan views. This trend toward celebrity coverage, an overabundance of human interest stories, ideological positioning, a strong political slant, and a disproportionate amount of military or professional experts instead of regular people or actual victims may explain why certain groups of people do not have a sense of what is really going on. Instead of relying on the facts or a variety of perspectives, the news is supplied in a flashy format and over time the people are mesmerized and do not realize they are being mislead. Cushion and Lewis (2009) asserted that the overuse of military analysts could lead viewers to perceive that certain networks are pro-war.
So, if Cushion and Lewis (2009) are right that the broadcast news outlets in the U.S. do not have strong public service ideals, but are instead pushing news bits and programs on Americans that serve corporate or government interests, is capitalism really providing democracy fair and balanced news? I tend to agree with Cushion and Lewis, yet many Americans feel that the market will correct itself. But how, especially if part of the market receives skewed bits and pieces; and, since the US Federal Communications Commission in 1987 suspended the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ which required balanced news coverage (Cushion and Lewis, 2009)? Unfortunately, a by product of the demise of the doctrine was the extreme right-wing and left-wing radio hosts who have polarized the citizens of this country into a quagmire of misinformation.
Interestingly, according to Wells (2004), a survey in Great Britain revealed that 85% of the public trust television news, compared to only one-third in the U.S. Further, Cushion and Lewis (2009), asserted that the U.K. still has strong impartiality guidelines similar to the Fairness Doctrine. Could there be a cause-and-effect scenario between perceptions of fair and balanced coverage? Cushion and Lewis (2009) argue that the stricter regulations “prohibit news outlets from significantly breaching viewers’ trust” (p. 148). They also highlighted a poll conducted in 2008 that showed that Americans would favor more fair and balanced news and suggested that America’s President Obama might bring back the Fairness Act (cited in Cushion and Lewis, 2009).
So, would a re-introduction of the Fairness Act limit the amount of misconceptions? Will we ever know? It doesn’t look like it. President Obama campaigned that he was opposed to the Fairness Doctrine and according to Fox News he’s sticking to his word (Berger, 2009). So, the best way to combat misconceptions and misinformation is to be as media literate as possible. I encourage people who only use one media source for their news to broaden their horizons to two, three, four, or more. Better yet, include in those new sources a few international news outlets. If we all do that, maybe the market will correct itself.