Are public service media distinctive from the market?

Interpreting the political information environments of BBC and commercial news in the United Kingdom

Cardiff University | Stephen Cushion
Published: 2021

Public service media face an existential crisis. Many governments are cutting their budgets, while questioning the role and value of public service broadcasting because many citizens now have access to a wide range of media. This raises the question – do public service media supply a distinctive and informative news service compared to market-led media? Drawing on the concept of political information environment, this study makes an intervention into debates by carrying out a comparative content analysis of news produced by UK public service broadcasters and market-driven media across television, radio and online outlets (N = 1065) and interviewing senior editors about the routine selection of news. It found that almost all BBC news and commercial public service media platforms reported more news about politics, public affairs and international issues than entirely market-driven outlets. Online BBC news reported more informative topics than market-based media, which featured more entertainment and celebrity stories. The value of public service media was demonstrated on the United Kingdom’s nightly television news bulletins, which shone a light on the world not often reported, especially BBC News at Ten. Most market-driven media reported through a UK prism, excluding many countries and international issues. Overall, it is argued that the influence of public service media in the United Kingdom helps shape an information environment with informative news. The focus of the study is on UK media, but the conceptual application of interpreting a political information environment is designed to be relevant for scholars internationally. While communication studies have sought to advance more cross-national studies in recent years, this can limit how relevant studies are for debates in national political information environments. This study concludes by recommending more scholarly attention should be paid to theorising national policy dynamics that shape the political information environments of media systems within nations.

[Text sourced from the SAGE]

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