Manuel Puppis: Scholar & Researcher

The following transcript is an interview with Manuel Puppis, Full Professor in Media Systems and Media Structures at the Department of Communication and Media Research DCM, University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Asking questions is Jennifer R. Henrichsen, a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, who is a member of the Center for Media at Risk Steering Committee and is interested in understanding how journalistic norms, values and practices are changing in an age of surveillance

How do you understand the notion of “Media at Risk?

That’s a difficult question because it involves so many different facets. Probably the most obvious one is when governments interfere with journalism or free media. And traditionally we see this in non-democratic societies, but certainly there is a danger looming also in democracies. If you think about Europe, central and eastern Europe has seen some backlash when it comes to democratic institutions, and also having free media. Especially Hungary, but also Poland is having some difficulties, to say the least, and Turkey, obviously as well.

But also in more established democracies, like the US, there are some difficult relations between policy makers and the media. And if this leads to some kind of infringement of media’s task to report on government, critically report on government and policy makers all around the country, on all federal levels, then, of course, this is a huge risk for our democracy.

The second risk that in communication studies we are well aware of, but is rarely talked about in policy discourse, I would say, is the commercial dependence of the media. Or at least market-funded media need to re-finance their operation so they, in the end, produce content that will be attractive for certain audiences, mainly audiences that also are interesting to the advertising industry. And this brings with it [a] completely different set of risks when it comes to bias in coverage, or not covering certain issues, because it might be against the interest of the advertisers of the medium.

Or, then, more generally, that some minority groups are not served by the media because they’re not big enough to actually make it economically viable. And then the third risk is also economic partly, that is the media crisis we are in. I think most western democracies see this development, that newspaper readership is going down, advertising is shifting to the internet, but not to the online ventures of traditional news media. But to new intermediaries, like search engines or social networks, that are not producing any content themselves.

Which means there is less money for journalism, also for entertainment. And this could be a huge danger if more and more newsrooms are closing down or we see more mergers, or chain ownership that leads to centralized newsrooms that cannot serve local communities the way they should.

You mentioned antagonism between the government and the press, but sometimes the response from journalists is, “Well we don’t want to be part and parcel of the government, we want to keep this antagonistic relationship.” What do you make of that?

Probably most journalists would like to do that. But then it also comes down to decisions in the newsroom and to news policies, and we know for decades now that journalistic professionalism does not necessarily run counter to owners pursuing a certain agenda. As long as journalists feel that it does not confine what they want to do and what they want to cover and does not have implications for what they feel to be the professional values of journalism, then they are fine with owners and the editor-in-chief taking decisions that somebody covers that topic or not covering certain topics.

Then we see, of course, also media that have it as a business model to cater for just one part of the population. If you take the US, Republican-leaning or Democratic-leaning voters, we see a polarization there, certainly, if you look to cable news programs … I mean, we could say this is not necessarily a problem as long as there are different channels that people can use. It becomes a problem if people have one news source and don’t read an additional newspaper or watch other TV programs, or go online to get their news. So, certainly, there is a danger of one-sided information, when it’s not just news, but opinion.

So it almost sounds like, as part of this, you would say that journalism professionalism is at risk. Would you say that’s accurate?

Not necessarily. I think, to a big degree, journalists take professionalism …as compatible with these commercial strategies of news organizations, as long as journalists in their daily decisions can do that they want. I mean they accept that there is an editor-in-chief who takes decisions, whether she or he wants another journalist doing that job or wants different angle covered as well. They accept this, because this is part of how news rooms work. I think as long as decisions in the news room and decisions by owners do not lead to a restriction of the freedoms of individual journalists in their daily job, then they will not mind and they still think that they can do their job.

I’m pretty sure they try to, and they want to, but it’s not always possible, given the… business models of news organizations. And perhaps also the political goals of some owners.

You were talking about how it’s a problem if individuals only go to one news source. So maybe they only watch Fox, for example. They don’t branch out from that, because it’s confirming their own beliefs about society. What do you think of echo chambers? What do you think of that term? What do you think of that idea? Is it something that you think is real and worrisome?

I mean, it is worrisome, whether we call it echo chambers or filter bubbles. It is definitely worrisome. The point is that, so far, there is little empirical evidence for this happening, right? There is a great overview of existing studies by colleagues in the Netherlands who show that … There is a difference between self-selection and algorithmic-selection. And yes, self-selection we know. This exists. Selective exposure to only certain news sources that I like, that probably are confirming to my own opinions, not going out of my comfort zone there, not wanting confront myself with different opinions or different story lines. That exists and we know from research that this can lead to polarization. Definitely.

Now, with algorithmic-selection, research so far shows that it is not really happening aside from the extreme fringes of the political spectrum. But the authors of that study also contend that with personalization, technology is getting better, and algorithms (are) getting better. There is a real danger that what we see happening with selective exposure (is) also happening here, so that we get news delivered that is so well selected that there is no need to break out of the bubble anymore. And might then also lead to this polarization. But whether this happens or not, we’re gonna see.

If it’s happening it’s certainly frightening, because we shouldn’t live in these bubbles and, perhaps, sometimes we have this view of the Golden Age of Journalism. Well, when it was still partly newspapers and there was competition in different news markets, most people probably did not read all the newspapers but one. So, it’s not a completely new phenomenon.

But today, with monopoly newspapers, monopoly TV stations in many markets when it comes to local news, then I think one of the main tasks of journalism is to break up this bubble spring. Bring them to burst and connect people living in different parts of the community so that they speak to each other, listen to each other, and even if they do not share the other’s view, that they acknowledge their arguments and understand where they’re coming from. I think this is the basis of any democratic discourse and communal life.

Yeah, absolutely. Although it’s challenging, right? You mentioned local news and how that’s collapsing and news deserts, for example, across the US. I know that even in Denver, recently, one of the major papers there laid off a whole bunch of people. So the economic situation is so closely tied, as you know, to these other issues, such as echo chambers and increased polarization.

Yeah, absolutely, the resources going to journalism, they are shrinking. Whether it’s news deserts or where still one newspaper exists, only one player left, with a diminished news room. There is not a new online offering starting up in every little community that might happen for special interest groups. Special interest news, in bigger cities, perhaps. But when you go down to the local level, this is not happening.

There are newspapers that are doing well, like the Washington Post, New York Times, but if you go to local communities, this is different certainly. Also, in TV with the recent talks about (the) Sinclair group, we see that there is a centralization in news production, in a way, that is also driven by an economic logic and that, obviously, diminishes diversity of the news.

We also have to keep the background of media systems in mind. The US is a very peculiar media system, but also if you look at other countries, I think in western democracies all are hit by this media crisis to varying levels.

I think of Scandinavia, and just the amount of state involvement in terms of funding, and things like that – that’s the difference versus the libertarian model.

Exactly. That’s the difference, government policy in the end. I mean, there are countries where there are subsidy programs for the press, whether it’s print press or online, and certainly the biggest difference is public service broadcasting. Which is also under pressure in many countries to save money, to cut costs, to not compete with private media online too much because it makes their life harder. But this is the main difference, and the US has a very weak public broadcasting system, which still manages to produce great programming. But, I mean, they have Federal funding of less than 500-million-dollars per year for a huge country and every year it’s threatened to be cut. So I think this makes a difference, although all the countries have to deal with this situation and they certainly have to deal with the situation that media use is changing and more and more people are getting their news online and not just from traditional media sources. Also startup media and players like Facebook and Google, where we do not really understand or know how their algorithms work.

I want to talk about the phenomenon that’s ill-defined — of fake news. What would be your definition of it? Do you think that this is increasingly problematic, in democracies in particular?

Huge question. I would define fake news as something that comes … to you as journalism, but clearly is not. So something that masks as journalism, but is either propaganda or just fabrication, or commercial communication could also be part of it … I think this fake news topic…is why we should put also in media policy such a great emphasis on media literacy programs. A media literacy that is not about how we can use devices. Probably the younger generation, they all know how to use their devices, better than most teachers will ever do or the elderly part of the population does. Perhaps they don’t use it always in the way that we think they should, but they know what to do with them and how to produce, even, their own videos, so that’s not the problem.

So has that been an issue? So with media literacy efforts, like I know UNESCO’s really big on that and has done a lot of work, as well as different EU projects. Has it been primarily focused on learning technologies versus critical awareness of what is news, what is not?

Well, existing programs certainly try also to go beyond that, right? Very often, if you talk to companies, they just want people to be able to use their devices so they use media. And then professional media, they go a step further in saying, “Yes we want people to be able to differentiate between what is journalism, what is commercial communication, what is – let’s call it fake news or propaganda.”

And that certainly is interesting. But I think we should go even beyond that, because for professional media, this is about not losing the audience because we are journalists, right? We provide the good content, that’s what we should use, so you should recognize it.

I think we should go further in understanding how journalism works, what professional values are in there, understanding the ownership and interests behind media companies and that certainly is something most media companies will not be interested in. Also understanding not just journalism and news production, but dissemination of news and distribution and algorithms and codes. So this goes way beyond just distinguishing between good journalism and bad content.

I think we should even go beyond that. It’s what I’d call media production literacy and media policy literacy. So it’s not just about using media as a more passive user, whether it’s traditional media journalism or Facebook or whatever, but also how to become involved in media production. Old media and new media. How to become involved in media policy and seeing, also, perhaps why media policy is so important for keeping media systesm alive. That is, actually, useful for our democracy and our society.

I’m sure you noticed the Sinclair controversy, or the latest Sinclair controversy, where a lot of newsrooms across the country were required to read the same script. Which was basically talking about how fake news is terrible, but it’s obviously coming from a very strong ideological place. How do media scholars, or others, push back on this development?

As long as it’s a completely unregulated market where a takeover of more and more local broadcasting stations is allowed by one and the same chain that can then, of course, for economic reasons or political partisan reasons, streamline their operation. Well, then there is not much we can do about this as scholars, aside from making people aware about that.

Then certainly, I think, there needs to be ownership restrictions on media and … Yeah, I don’t think politicians are ready to go there.

Yeah. Yeah. It doesn’t seem like it. Especially with this administration and with the FCC, the new leadership of FCC.

But even in the past, big mergers were just allowed. I also understand it, it’s a difficult walk between trying to have economically successful businesses in the media sector, that also hire people. But on the other hand, I think these monopolies that are developing here are also stifling competition and innovation in certain markets. There could even be a good economic argument for regulation, not just a societal argument for regulation. But then again, I have to say I didn’t follow the Sinclair case that closely.

I like the opposite argument that you just made about the economic piece and how monopolies stifle competition. Because it seems like, at least with the libertarian model in the US, it’s always … Let the market decide what’s valuable, and things like that.

That’s very astonishing. That’s partly also happening in Europe, I’d say.

Where in Europe is that?

In most countries by now, there are no specific rules for media mergers anymore. This was dismantled in the last years. The UK did a lot of deregulation in that area. If I think about Switzerland, they dismantled media ownership regulation completely in the last years. And you might say, for some small markets like Switzerland with eight-million people living there, well, understandable because media companies are small already so they need to be able to grow at least (a) little bit, otherwise they will die.

I understand the argument but still think it also creates a lot of problems. Having said that, market failure is a part of market theory. It’s not like we can just put that away, because functioning markets with perfect competition rely on a number of assumptions. And if this is not given, we have market failure. And then there is good reason for economic regulation.

And having said that, economic regulation that is justified by market failure just leads to competitive markets, right? This does not say anything about the content produced by the players in the market. So, from a societal view, or the view of communication studies also, there might be even more need for regulation than just economic regulation. If you have 10 TV stations competing for the latest gossip, well, that’s a working economic market. But probably not what we expect from the media.

And so how would the content piece be addressed within that framework?

I think ownership restrictions can be one part of it. Then you can work with subsidies to give incentives for news organizations to produce certain content. Same subsidies also to produce content that otherwise would not be produced, and I’m speaking particularly about small markets, smaller countries. In the US, the market is big enough that you have channels like HBO or that Netflix could develop, and they’re producing a lot of original content. But in smaller countries it’s just too expensive to do that on a regular basis. But even here, paid TV produces only stuff that, in the end, finds a viewership that is big enough and affluent enough that they can refinance it.

When you talked about subsidies just now, are you primarily thinking of government subsidies?

Yes. I think Scandinavia has, especially Denmark and Sweden have, a long tradition of working press subsidies and in the last years, Denmark already did it. Sweden is in the process of doing it. They reformed this program so that they are also able to support online journalism and it leads to a situation where news rooms or news organizations are, in the end, dependent on that money. They keep up some competition, which otherwise would not exist, because they are putting money in, right? Giving them money to do their job.

If we are willing to accept that, that there is constant support for these news organizations, then I think that’s a good model because if you look at all the press freedom surveys, read Freedom House or Reporters without Borders. These countries are in the top positions always. And just because they get money from the state does not mean that they are dependent on the state. They are free to report whatever they like.

This is also the important thing in how you build this support system. That you do not make it dependent on the content side, but only on the structural side. So, what is newsroom structure? How many people are in employed? How much of your income is based on advertising? Is your market big enough to support your operation so that it is as hands off from the daily business of news as possible.

Are there restrictions for preventing possible intervention by the state into content in Sweden and Denmark?

As in all Western countries it’s part of the Constitution that the press is free, so that’s not even an issue.

Victor Pickard is one scholar who has argued, “we need government support because the commercial market of journalism in the US is not viable.” And then people are like, “whoa, whoa, whoa, we don’t want government involved at all because they would impede on our ability to report freely” and things like that. But, I’m of the mindset that it’s already not working, so why not look to Sweden and Denmark, who are using these types of subsidies. You said “for this structure,” but, how can you translate that into the US system?

Perhaps I’ll start with the Swiss system because we have the same discussion. We only have, like the US, indirect subsidies. And in Switzerland, postal taxes for newspapers are lower and they are exempted from many other taxes. Or, not exactly, but they have reduced tax rates. So this is the biggest subsidy together. It’s bigger than … In all countries, by the way, indirect subsidies are way bigger than the direct subsidies that exist.

In Switzerland, now, the media crisis (has) hit hard. It’s a small country with different linguistic communities, right? They’re small. The biggest one, generally speaking, is 4.5-million people. And it’s, like the US, a Federal system. It has 26 states. The political unities and the economic unities do not match for a long time now, and media markets are way bigger than the political units.

So we have a huge problem that local news production is not happening anymore. Everything is centralized.

In Bern or where?

Zurich mostly, for German speaking probably Zurich, for the French speaking probably Lausanne. Journalists are laid off and while they might still be hundred-plus daily newspapers, in the end it comes down to 15 news rooms, max. And now people are worried, and journalists are laid off and suddenly we talk about subsidies. We started 10 years ago, we need to do something about subsidies, as scholars, and try to talk to policy makers and now, suddenly it is shifting a little bit. Something is happening.

Because just the suffering is there, it’s not somewhere in the future and we will be fine and somehow this crisis will be managed. This does not work anymore, they’re in a bad place right now. They go on strike. And for that to happen in Switzerland …

For that to happen with journalists, it means a lot. So how to bring this to the US? I frankly don’t know. Probably starting with local communities that really suffer from the loss of their news organizations. Starting with news organizations where the layoffs are felt, that the implications are felt. Where it’s probably not starting with the New York Times or Washington Post where they’re good.

The Trump Bump. 9% to 16%.

Yeah. Exactly. I mean they can cater to an international audience and sell subscriptions everywhere. Probably not the same in Alabama or wherever. Even in Philadelphia, the Inquirer is not doing that well as the big newspapers, right? So probably start there and try to bring them aboard and then push for subsidies.

Maybe the subsidies would come from the state?

Perhaps it could be a solution that on the state level there are new programs. And also in Switzerland this is discussed, because in the French speaking part the pressure is higher. But we also have to think, of course, when we talk about freedom of the press and press subsidies, that very much depends on political culture. Whether this “hands off” approach is really lifted in daily business in the end.

There are countries … where there are subsidies and press freedom is not at will, but perhaps these countries will not be on the top spots anyway.

Who are you thinking of?

Well, Italy, for instance. I’m half Italian, so I say this.

In television we saw the effect of the Berlusconi years clearly. In the newspaper industry it was … it was less of a problem and although subsidies existed, the printed press was doing pretty well, independent from government interference. I don’t know how it would be in this country. It’s such a divided political landscape, whether whomever is in power would try to corrupt the system for their own purposes.

Or even the money that is used by billionaires, for example. So the Koch brothers fund lots of different entities in order to get the content that they want out. So it’s not even just the political relevance that….

Foundation funded journalism has this problem that … either it’s independent and they let you do whatever you want, same with school, same with culture institutions. Or they have a political goal that they want to further … But, in the end, it really depends on political culture. It depends on the institutions you build, how these programs then work and … it obviously needs to be discussed up front. To show how these programs could be independent and how government cannot interfere with what’s happening in the newsroom.

The topics that you mentioned related to media at risk, would you say those are the same in Switzerland? As how you’ve talked about it thus far?

I mentioned three; government interference, commercial incentives and then the media crisis. I would say the media crisis, same in Europe, also in Switzerland. With the exception that there is, at least, a strong public service broadcast that … it’s a counter-force to all that. Commercial incentives, certainly that is the case. Government interference I don’t see that in Switzerland, personally. I also don’t see it in Scandinavia so much. So, central/eastern Europe’s a different story.

Italy can be a very different story as well.

Turkey. Totally different story.

Definitely. We can discuss whether this is still a democratic system, right? Then probably what I would see as a fourth risk in the US, and not in Europe, is money in politics. I mean this only has an indirect effect on journalism and the media, but it changes the force and the weight of the different political opponents. If a company is allowed to give money to candidates and parties and this is part of free speech, then the whole electoral competition becomes uneven.

Right. And then the reporting is also problematic, typically.

It can be problematic, definitely. Yeah.

We actually talk about that. I’m sure a lot of other people feel the same way, but the rhetorical strategy of objectivity that journalists use, especially in the US election coverage, is so problematic. How do you reach journalists on that issue, in order to make sure that coverage is more balanced and fair? Because they always return to this strategy, but it’s obviously not working.

No, it’s not working, in fact.

Yeah. It’s really problematic.

I think it should be said, if something claimed is wrong. And, yes you can still show both sides, but then also say, “And this is not an opinion piece, this is still, in fact, true reporting.” That the administration, or this party, or this candidate wrongly claims that “this is the case.” I think this is necessary-

But they’re not doing that, though some are.

I think they … I don’t know why, probably this is so deep in journalistic values, professional values, that you report both sides evenly, even if somebody is lying.

Yeah.

Whether the Earth is a sphere or whether it’s flat? Well, you cannot present this as equal arguments. One of them is wrong. And I think this should be called out and probably this is a job, or something to be discussed, in journalism education. It certainly is useful to scrutinize professional values in journalism. I mean, we also have to remember that professional values … were not just an invention like this, but it was … there was a commercial reason behind it.

As soon as you’re a monopoly newspaper, you have to cater for the whole audience, so you need to be objective.

Exactly. Like the Associated Press.

Yeah. I’m not saying objectivity is useless, no it isn’t. Obviously not.

But it’s misused in a way.

Yeah, it’s misused when non-factual information is given.

Exactly, which is increasingly, problematic based in the US context. That gets to another issue, which is the lack of trust in media. I’m pretty sure that trust in media is at an all-time low, according to some reports. I think Reuters was talking about that. And some scholars argue that that’s in part because trust in democratic institutions is also quite low. Would you say that there are other factors that are involved in that relationship? Or would you take issue with the relationship that’s being presented?

First I will take issue with the result itself. I think it’s very country-dependent. It’s probably true in the US and we are at an all-time low of trust in government, so we need new ways of involving people in policy making and so on. Which is all great, and I applaud that, certainly.

But, coming from a country where trust in government is high, trust in institutions is high, trust in media – journalism – is pretty high. I think … it’s not a global result, and yes, if I take Switzerland, we happen to have more and more referenda on issues. Where traditional institutions are at stake, like public service broadcasting or what is the role of courts. Should a referendum be able to overturn human rights? And such issues? Basic issues. So basic questions about the institutions we have and the way our political system works.

But they are turned down every time. Heavily turned down.

By the public.

Yeah, by the public, in these votes. So, I guess, trust is still high there. Is it low here? Probably. We know this from surveys. How did we get there? Probably, I would assume – I don’t know – that the divisive political debates are certainly not helping and journalism plays a role in that. News media play a role in that. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t point out corruption and other issues in government, but … probably this kind of horse-race journalism … or the number of talking heads on television that just either cater to the MSNBC audience or the Fox News audience, it’s probably not helping in coming together.

Yeah, absolutely.

And this morning it was fascinating to me as I watched Fox News, then MSNBC. I couldn’t stand both, turned to CNN and actually they had two Republican senators and congressmen there who just wrote the book about unifying the country and coming together. And this was such a stark contrast to what was going on the other channels. And I think this is exactly what’s needed.

That makes me think of different forms of journalism, like peace journalism that Johan Galtung developed a long time ago in Norway, or maybe some elements of development journalism, depending on which countries you’re looking at. So would you say journalism as an entity – if you could say journalism is an entity – needs to shape how it’s discussing issues differently in order to have a multi-perspectival approach?

Well I would say that journalism isn’t – or many journalists aren’t – doing a bad job. A lot of the news stories that break all the time are great investigative pieces, so we shouldn’t forget about that. But when it comes to covering daily politics, probably taking it a notch down wouldn’t be that wrong. What I see as a problem, if you talk about multiple perspectives, is that traditionally, journalism has a bias towards established voices. Official sources. And this is understandable. If you’re having to write a piece and you need a quote, you know who to call and you know where the press releases are to get some information, definitely. But, many minorities in society are not quoted or don’t have their voices heard, and I think this is something that journalism can get better. This is also something where new media can help, and then we come back to media production literacy. How can I or my group get involved in getting my voice heard? In political debates? In public discourse? So, I think this could play a role.

And also maybe diversifying the newsrooms-

Definitely.

As well.

That’s definitely an issue and that’s also true for Switzerland, not just for the US. A) Gender. B) Ethnicity. Migrants and so on … so yeah, definitely.

I want to ask you a question about how you see the Center for Media at Risk affecting the Annenberg landscape, since you’ve been previously at Annenberg?

I think the Center puts a very important issue on the table; media at risk. And by being not only about journalism but also about entertainment and documentary film making and so on, it is broad in appeal. And if I think about the school overall, I think it helps in giving journalism, but also generally economic problems behind media production, and perhaps policy solutions and media activism. It gives them more prominence in the school. There are great scholars at Annenberg who work on these issues already, who did for a long time, also. But it’s certainly a much needed effort, not just at Annenberg, but given the society we are living in and how it develops, regarding everything we talked about; money in politics, commercialization of the media, media crisis and so on.

If it helps to inspire a conversation and get people to listen and come together and discuss these issues, it will be great.

Okay, great. Yeah. That’s the goal. Also to get journalism practitioners here as well. And so, in the past year we’ve had a few.

And I think it helps to discuss these issues, find out their viewpoints and where they disagree with us as scholars.

Or what they haven’t thought about, which is very interesting.

Exactly. An author of a methods book on interviews always describes interviews as an interchange of views. And this is also what conversations and talks and discussions are, at their best. That I learn something new, that I get a new perspective and I think this can be very much the case between practitioners and academics.

Center for Media at Risk
media.risk@asc.upenn.edu

This article was published by the editors and producers at the Center for Media at Risk.