Sunday, July 22, 2007

Media and the Free rider problem

It is cliched but unarguably true that for the mainstream mass media, good news is mainly the bad or the sensational. Thanks to this trend, the role of the print and electronic media in shaping the terms of agenda on issues of civic concern is fast diminishing. (Though the role of the emerging media, mainly linked to the Internet, is becoming important) At the risk of being politically incorrect, I will stick out my neck and argue that unless there is proactive intervention (by whom and how is a different issue), the mainstream mass media will not supply adequate amount of space for issues of civic concern. Before you accuse me of being anti-democratic, in the best traditions of democracy, let me lay out my case.

One of the most evident consequence of the proliferation of mass communication media, has been the race towards the bottom or the lowest common denominator. The touchstone for a successful or "newsworthy" news item becomes its ability to stimulate or evoke the extreme passions within the reader or viewer. The substance of the issue or its appropriate perspective is only secondary or even, in some cases, irrelevant. Only the sensational, gory, provocative, controversial, exceptional news stories are considered worthy of capturing the major space in our news media. Call it by whatever name, the driving force behind this trend is economics, and the media are only responding to the existing incentive structure.

In the circumstances, any newspaper or TV channel that ventures out to publish or bring out a story on an issue of civic concern, which does not conform to any of the aforementioned parameters, is being irrational in going against the incentive structure. Not only does it not get any benefit from covering such issues, it also loses out readership to its competitiors. Thus issues of civic concern, or a public good, does not get adequately reflected in popular attention, and is therefore under-supplied by the media. Economists would call it a free-rider problem.

Public goods are those which are non-excludable (supplier cannot exclude those who do not pay for its from consuming it) and non-rival (the same news item can be seen or read by many people at a time, without affecting each one's utility). They suffer from the problem of free-ridership, in so far as the market does not provide these goods in the required quantities. The under supply arises from the producer's inability to recover the full or even partial cost of production from the consumers. Such a situation is called a market failure. Free riders are agents who consume more than their share of resources, or who do not bear the proportionate cost of production of any good which they and the society benefits from. The free rider problem therefore arises from issues of incentive compatibility, which leads the suppliers to under supply the particular good.

The mainstream mass media tries to free-ride on the more socially responsible media channels, who supply the public good despite the adverse incentive system. The social goods, like propogation of issues of civic and public concern, are public goods and hence its supply is not compatible with the existing market incentive structure for the mass media channels. They suffer from the issue of free-ridership, in so far as every mass media group thinks that it can shirk and let others deliver this public good, which does not fetch it any economic return from the market. These goods therefore tend to be under supplied by the mass media market.

Not only does the market under supply news of social and public concern, it will also over supply garbage. After all what significant difference does it make to anybody other than her relations, as to what Paris Hilton is doing in jail or when she will come out of jail? What great social purpose is served by being bombarded with a live broadcast of the antics of Shilpa Shetty and her Big Brother colleagues? The age of pure media groups is over and increasingly media channels are controlled by consortiums or various corporate interests. In the circumstances, it is only understandable that all shades of opinions on issues do not get reflected in any balanced and equitable manner, and the news worthy items are those which pander to the lowest common denominator. Further, such interlocking external interests also means that mass access to dispassionate and objective delivery of news information will become difficult.

Quite apart from the purely economic incentive structure and unlike other goods sold in the market, mass media have certain social and civic responsibilities. The unique access conferred on media goods to the entire public realm, makes mass media very different from any other commodity supplied in a market. The owner of any mass media channel has access over a social space, populated by the minds of all citizens, and is therefore in a position to exercise influence over them. That this influence has important socio-economic, political and civic implications means that it has to be exercised with restraint. It also means that such mass media are the most effective means to disseminate messages, spread awareness, generate debates, set agendas and build public opinion.

So we need to orient the incentive structure to make it attractive for the mass media channels to deliver such public goods. The simplest way is to regulate that each newspaper demarcate some space and each audio-visual medium set apart some time for delivering these public goods. Another way is for governments to sponsor such spaces within the existing commercial mass media. This has the danger of the message losing focus and being inferior in the content standard, and also being marginalized within the particular media. The most extreme solution is for the Government itself to deliver such messages through its own channels. Here the problem is of credibility and again standard.

Whatever the solution, the objective of the post is to only highlight the fact that, increasingly issues of public and civic concern will be marginalized in the mainstream mass media channels, as the inexorable logic of the market winds its way through. We will need to proactively identify and demarcate space for socially useful information and messages, because left to itself the mass media market willl not supply it in the required quantities.

Update 1
Matthew Ellman and Fabrizio Germano argue that advertising has seriously interfered with the quality, accuracy, and breadth of content and programming in the media and calls for vigorous competition in media markets and public funding of informative media as a public good.

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