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date: 20 February 2018

Policy Issues Surrounding Journalism

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

The role of government policy in journalism can vary substantially across nations; in recent years, the primary policy issues surrounding journalism have evolved as technological changes have dramatically configured—and in some cases threatened—the position of traditional journalistic institutions, and given rise to new journalistic forms and organizations.

In nations such as the United States, where the commercial model of journalism production has long predominated, we have seen a pronounced expansion in recent years, beyond a policy focus on how to maintain sufficient competition and diversity amongst the organizations that produce journalism (i.e., ownership regulation) to include consideration of possible policy approaches to preserving and protecting traditional journalism organizations in the face of a much more challenging economic environment. Thus, policymakers have considered options such as legislation allowing commercial newspapers to convert to non-profit status; they have engaged in more a rigorous governmental assessment of the functioning of local journalism ecosystems and the ways in which the critical information needs of news consumers are being met. In this latter case, the question of what, if any, policy responses might emerge from such investigations has remained unclear, and is a source of significant controversy.

In nations with a stronger tradition of noncommercial, publically supported journalism, key policy issues that have arisen in recent years have included media freedom and pluralism (with particular emphases and mechanisms for protecting journalists and for ensuring ownership transparency and diversity), as well as comprehensive reassessments of the structure and functioning of public service media, to ensure that these institutions are effectively evolving in response to the changing media environment in ways that maximize their ability to serve media users’ information needs.

Issues of journalism ethics and performance have found their way onto the policy agenda as well. This has most notably been the case in the United Kingdom, where revelations of illegal mobile phone hacking by British tabloid journalists led to a formal government inquiry (the Leveson Inquiry) and recommendations for the creation of a new, independent governance structure with significant sanctioning and dispute arbitration authority.

An important concern that is only beginning to emerge (particularly in Europe) and that may ultimately take form as a dominant journalism policy issue involves the question of the increasingly influential role that digital intermediaries (social media platforms, search engines, mobile applications) play in the process via which journalism reaches news consumers. Here, the emerging concern is whether some more formal and authoritative governance structures are necessary to ensure that these intermediaries have positive, rather than negative, effects on the flow of news and information within communities.