Over the last 50 years, news coverage of media has increased a lot. Media used to keep silent about themselves. "When I started," says David Chipp, 75, (Press Complaints Commission, UK) "news about newspapers or journalists just was not considered news." "There is far more press criticism," notes R. Koven (World Press Freedom Committee), "in the old days, there was a sense of propriety. Journalists were not supposed to talk about their own troubles." Now the media increasingly often are the story.
Media critics have always existed, but never in great numbers. Then, in the 1960s, journalists realized the public wanted news and views about media. As late as 1985, however, when he began reporting on media, David Shaw (of the Los Angeles Times) was an anomaly. His Pulitzer Prize in 1991 was a premiere. Recently, over the last ten or twelve years, the coverage of media has surged, almost everywhere.
Why the Change?
Because of the growing importance of media. People spend more time on them. They are fascinated by media stars, but also concerned about how media serve them. At a time when more information is available, and sources more plentiful. Disquieting trends in the media industry (concentration of ownership, infotainment in the West, state control in the East) increase public curiosity, as do major scandals. Public confidence in media is declining everywhere, so they need to polish their image (and avoid law suits). They show more openness with the public and often explain why they make controversial decisions. Besides, increased competition lowers inhibitions: "In previous years," says Oktai Eksi (columnist, Turkish daily Hurriyet), "there was a kind of unwritten agreement among news people (especially newspaper owners) on 'not writing about the others' faults.'"
Who? Where? What?
Five kinds of people cover the media. Critics have not multiplied anywhere, whether in the U.S. or Belgium. Media reporters are more numerous now. But what has clearly increased is the interest in media of other reporters and columnists. Then there are eminent outsiders; in France, intellectuals enjoy practicing media criticism. Lastly, the ordinary citizen uses previously unavailable means to express his/her views: ombudsmen, the e-mail box of journalists and Web sites.
Naturally, the media coverage is to be found in dailies and newsmagazines: Lori Robertson (American Journalism Review) notes "the increased tendency by newspapers to examine their own actions or to discuss them." Trade and specialized magazines, of course, contribute criticism too. More so the alternative press with its reports on local media. And, mainly in the U.S., the "journalism reviews," academic like the Columbia Journalism Review or partisan like Fair.
Radio and television do little, except public broadcasting (as in France, Sweden, New Zealand, etc.). In the U.S., for instance, the On the Media program on NPR has gone into an impressive second incarnation. PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer recently introduced a media beat. Even commercial networks like CNN and Fox News now have regular programs. Not to forget the many talk shows who assault either the "liberal media" or the "conservative media." On the Internet, media criticism has boomed.
Coverage shows great diversity. A growing number of stories partake of gossip, to feed the public passion for media celebrities. Close to them are puff pieces, PR for various media productions. Much of the coverage is of the media industry. As David Pritchard (U. of Wisconsin) sees it, in the U.S.: "Most coverage focuses on the business side of the media, especially on the mega-deals and on media technology. The mega-deals have a wonderful soap-opera quality."
Yet how media cover big issue stories has become a story in itself. Journalists reporting on them include sidebars about "media behavior," partly as a way of separating themselves from the "feeding frenzy," notes Prof. Tom Brislin (U. of Hawaii). Media criticism proper is stable or declining, depending on the country, but some dailies do a great job like The Guardian in Great Britain or the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (who also works for CNN).
A Quick Tour of the Planet
Europe first. In the United Kingdom, Ian Mayes, The Guardian's ombudsman, considers that increased media coverage "is a clear trend. The public seems obsessed with media tycoons." Employing six media reporters just for its on-line edition, The Guardian regularly publishes more data. The country has recently witnessed a burgeoning interest in ethics, with the trade magazine, Press Gazette, covering ethical issues regularly. In Ireland, there certainly has been more written about the media in recent years, with an original touch: the increase in number of radio programs about media.
In France, "media reporters are regularly increasing in number," says Andrﾂ Gattolin, of the daily Libﾂration. "In the 80s, we were the first to start a media page." Florence Amalou, of Le Monde, writes "The number of media reporters has noticeably increased since about 1997-1998. It started with the creation of 'media-communication' pages in dailies. On January 1, 1997, we moved from half a page every day to a full page."
In Germany, especially at the beginning of the 90s, media critics, departments in newspapers and reporters have increased. In recent years, the newsweekly Der Spiegel has expanded its section, as also has the Sﾁddeutsche Zeitung. The FAZ now has a media page.
In Sweden, certainly there is more coverage of the media. In Flemish-speaking Belgium, a recent increase in media criticism is noted. In Switzerland, the number of media reporters has clearly increased over the last four or five years. Media pages appeared in dailies like Neue Zﾁrcher Zeitung, Tages-Anzeiger (Zurich), Bund (Bern) and Le Temps (Geneva).
In Portugal, writes Prof. J-M. Nobre-Coreia: "Specialized pages and media columns have for some years proliferated like mushrooms in dailies and weeklies-with quite a lot of criticism in them." "In the Spanish press, the trend towards more media coverage started five or six years ago. But recently the quality of media coverage has decreased." (A. Sanchez-Tabernero, U. de Navarra). In Israel, more coverage and criticism is found in all media, print and electronic.
What of the former Soviet empire? In Romania, there is less debate over the social function of media than in the immediate post- Ceaucescu era. But much more is published about media, says Mihai Coman, due to Western influence and to new institutions that churn out information on media. This is due also to controversies over "scandals" revealed by the media.
In Russia, there has been growth over the last few years. Izvestiya and Komsomolsaya Pravda provide regular coverage. About five years ago, people realized a free press is not always a good press. Most media are not independent, so coverage and criticism are largely biased politicized battles over television. PR coverage also has known a big rise, but not coverage of media as a business or as a craft.
Latin America? "In some countries," writes A. Sanchez-Tabernero, "democracies are somewhat 'formal.' Media are still some distance from a 'free market.' Some are 'controlled' by the governments. In such a context it is not easy to write a lot about media issues like quality in journalism, ethical issues or accountability of the press." Yet, in some countries, like Argentina, media criticism flourishes.
In Australia, according to Michael Bromley (Queensland U.), "media criticism is much weaker than in the UK. The media are more secretive and less amenable to scrutiny, and journalism is less aggressive. However, criticism proves to be resilient: ABC television's Media Watch, taken off the air in 2001, returned in mid-2002. The Australian newspaper revamped its media coverage into a pull-out section. While any increase has been marginal, at least media criticism hasn't diminished."
Asia? Korea has witnessed a big increase in media reporting and criticism ever since democratization in 1987. In Japanese newspapers, media critics and media reporters have increased in number in the past 15 years. In Hong Kong, a noticeable increase of reciprocal criticism among the mass-circulated newspapers, was prompted by competition rather than a concern for quality.
In the largest media market on the planet, the U.S.A., "There has been a sharp increase in media studies and media criticism in the last several years," says respected critic Ben Bagdikian. "There were before three journals of media criticism [...] But today, major daily papers do periodic or regular combinations of media reporting (trends in journalism, particular cases of poor reporting or questionable ethics). Dozens of weeklies and the major newsweeklies regularly have reports of media behavior. Free-lance media criticism is almost a cottage industry."
The Half-Empty Glass
The above panorama could be misleading. The world picture is not uniform. In some parts, little has changed. In emerging democracies, media criticism rarely emerges. In most of Africa, some newspapers now have a media section but self-criticism is unknown. Some former Soviet states and satellites report a decline in the number of media critics (Poland, Estonia) or their non-existence (Georgia).
As for Western Europe, Sweden reports no change. With the economic crisis, German media first fire media reporters-while in television, some formats have closed down for lack of an audience. In Austria, new postage rates in 2000 have caused magazines to die, some of which carried media criticism.
In Britain, Prof. Richard Keeble is not aware of a recent growth in the number of media correspondents on the "quality dailies." The tendency was always for The Guardian's dominance to operate as a disincentive to others; the Times has reduced its media section from three pages to one. The few broadcast programs (Channel 4, Radio 4) are gone. In Ireland, The Irish Times has not replaced its media reporter, the only one in the country. In France, A. Gattolin estimates, the trend has been down in dailies and newsmagazines for three or four years and the media section is often located in the Economy or New Tech pages-while coverage has increased on the airwaves and in the trade press. Media criticism is very limited.
What of the Americas? In Brazil, Luiz Garcia of O Globo writes "No, I haven't seen any noticeable increase. In the big newspapers, there's only the ombudsman at Folha and the internal critic that we have. O Estado de S. Paulo has a specialist who writes on media once a week. And that's about it." A Canadian echo: no increased coverage or criticism in the media in recent times.
And so back to the United States of America. According to media reporter David Shaw: "There is no trend. There are fewer ombudsmen, I believe, and there never have been very many in-house press critics. A few big papers-the New York Times, New York Daily News, and Washington Post-have media reporters, and The Boston Globe and a few others have media columnists but I'm not aware of any recent additions to the tribe." And Brill's Content, a would-be commercial journalism review, died in 2001.
In the opinion of Prof. Arnold Ismach (U. of Oregon), "there has been absolutely no growth in the number of media critics in any of the media. In fact, it has shrunk. You just don't see consistent media criticism in the press." For Deni Elliott (U. of South Florida - St. Petersburg): "The U.S. press has decided that people find media coverage (and media infighting) entertaining. Unfortunately, the trend has not resulted in any real attempts to educate citizens about the media." "My intuition says there hasn't been much of a change in numbers one way or the other," writes Carl Stepp (American Journalism Review). A widely held view.
If anything, the trend in regular media is towards less media coverage, due to the decline of advertising. In Switzerland, the largest quality paper, Tages-Anzeiger, has closed its innovative media section and so have La Tribune and Le Temps (Geneva). The same diagnostic is given in Canada, Belgium and France.
Salvation Comes from the Web
U.S. journalism reviews proliferate on the Web. Joshua S. Fouts (editor, Online Journalism Review) says "I've seen a decrease in media-on-media reporting. The heyday of that kind of reporting was three years ago. There is plenty of commentary from individual and independent publishers, however. Thanks to the Internet these people now have a venue that can reach an audience they could only have dreamt of in pre-digital days."
The Internet is where media criticism now flowers. Media-oriented bloggers have multiplied. For John McManus (editor, www.gradethenews.org), "the web has vastly reduced economic barriers to entry for critics. Of course, many of these new critics are just cranks. One should distinguish between those who do it professionally vs. the hobbyists."
To the Web logs must be added the Web sites of institutions like, in the U.S., the Poynter Institute, the Pew Center or the Society of Professional Journalists. There one finds reports and comments by non-media people, and forums and chats about media practices. Every major country has them.
To sum up, there is a double growth trend in many countries. What is increasing is (a) the number of journalists taking the media as a topic, and (b) the amount of media criticism published outside the regular media by journalists and non-journalists, in books and on the Web. Those very positive trends can contribute to the improvement of news media that democracy desperately needs. News media cannot be left to pursue strictly financial or ideological goals. After the development of journalistic education, now comes the expansion of accountability, via transparency, monitoring and criticism.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2004 (15:2), pp.9,21-23.