Trends in Media Independence
The polarization of public life, observed in parts of all regions covered by this study, highlights the need for independent and professional journalism that is able to provide verifiable information as a common content currency to serve effective and open public debates. Yet, in continuity with the trends highlighted in the first World Trends Report, published in 2014, media independence is under increased pressure, due to complex interconnections between political power and regulatory authorities, attempts to influence or delegitimize media and journalists, and shrinking budgets in news organizations. This deterioration of media independence is reflected in a number of indicators.
There is declining public trust in news media reported across most regions. Disruptions in business models have been seen as contributing to increasing dependence on government and corporate subsidies in some circumstances, and thereby raising concerns about potential impacts on editorial independence. In some cases, there has been an increase in highly antagonistic criticism, including from leaders, about media and the practice of journalism. These criticisms are seen to carry the danger of promoting intolerance of expression, and undermining the credibility of all journalism, irrespective of its authenticity. Across all regions, the autonomy of independent regulators has faced pressure. Across large parts of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, licensing of broadcast operators lacks transparency and continues to be driven by political and commercial rather than public interest. Self-regulatory bodies, which can support the exercise of professional standards while maintaining editorial independence, have received increased interest in countries with growing media sectors. However, in addition to the difficulty of establishing and maintaining independence in a sustainable way, press councils have faced digital-era challenges, such as the moderation of user-generated comments.
At the same time, there are positive developments for the independence of journalists to make editorial decisions. In Africa, the Arab States and the Asia Pacific region, journalists have self-reported substantial increases of journalistic autonomy. Such changes have also encouraged alternative and often influential outlets for journalists, including on digital media, as well as international investigative journalism collaborations. With continuing growth of information abundance online, the distinctive value of independent journalism is being underlined. Journalism education, which reinforces independent professional standards in the media, has seen a notable growth in the availability of online resources. However, donor support for independent NGOs doing media development has fluctuated, posing significant sustainability challenges, particularly in parts of Africa and Central and Eastern Europe. These groups are also impacted by growing legislation that restricts foreign funding.
In the context of increasing pressure to respond to content on social media that incites violence or hatred, internet companies have launched self-regulatory initiatives to counter hate speech, violent extremism, misogyny, racism and so-called ‘fake news’. Tools have included media and information literacy campaigns; partnerships with fact-checking and research organizations; support to journalists; and removing advertising from sites that generate such content. In the face of fabricated and counterfeit news reports, many news media brands are using the opportunity to show their unique value-add as reliable sources of information and commentary.