Off to a Fresh Start: Reframing the Media Research Agenda

December 2, 2016

The Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) has been operating for more than a decade now, establishing itself as a focal point for an international network of acclaimed scholars, researchers and activists. Over the last ten years, the Center has carried out research and organized events on an array of topics ranging from privacy laws to violent online political extremism to social media. Furthermore, it brings together researchers through its fellowship program, whilst its annual summer school, in existence for eight years, is a recognized meeting point for researchers, activists, policymakers and journalists to debate research priorities and advocacy targets.

In the past three months, we held a consultation process with leading players in media policy and research, including our board members, which focused on the contemporary challenges facing media freedom and independent journalism.

Here is what we learned.

Regulation, Money and Public Service

Whilst there is extensive research and literature on the technicalities related to the process of regulation, the actual impact of this process on media and society is not measured methodically. Funding independent journalism is increasingly becoming a policy issue. But policies and public strategies on funding journalism should be anchored in solid research, which is particularly important in new democracies. The debate about the power over the public sphere has to be reframed as well.

Some experts and media scholars go as far as to argue that the fragmentation of the digital media is as bad for democracy as the monopolization of the old media. But while monopolization was detectable and laws against the process could be imposed, the fragmentation of the digital space cannot be regulated by laws. Research into the new forces that shape the digital space is essential for all players involved in media and journalism.

Media in Illiberal Democracies

The rise of illiberal democracy and populism comes with new forms of media policy, which have already crystallized in forms of state censorship. The media in these societies are captured by political and business interests of the governing elites.

The media is used to manufacture consent and curtail dissent. Media systems are put into the service of populist mobilization strategies. Party rulers gather to learn from each other, similar to media regulators. Understanding media policies of illiberal regimes is a gap media research is yet to fill.

Independent Journalism

The mapping of owners, ownership structures and links to politics has been undertaken by several major academic institutions and NGOs. What has not yet been covered methodically, is the actual impact these power groups have on editorial and journalists’ behavior.

Building a research model to monitor ownership and business models and study how ownership and unsuccessful business models are eating into independent journalism should be part of a new media research agenda.

Alternative Policymaking Solutions

The shift in the power relationships today is at its heart a shift in political relationships. As such, research should go hand in hand with more engagement with policymakers. There is no real concern among decision makers about the impact of these shifts on diversity and pluralism of opinion and on freedom of expression. Increasingly the answer of policymakers to all the problems is that ‘the internet solves everything’.

Moreover, we witness a large disconnect between the priorities that a number of regulatory authorities and political bodies put forward and the real policy issues that affect (or do not affect, but should) independent media and journalism.

The solution foreseen by policymakers is a binary one: either we go with the large tech giants and play within their own walls or be open and work with the governments in designing regulatory frameworks that will engulf them. The problem is that neither of these are workable solutions, rather the opposite.

Finding alternative models is a major challenge that should be addressed by think tanks and research centers.

Such trends are best studied and acted upon through larger research networks. However numerous difficulties arise in regards to coordinating such research, communicating it to policymakers and building solid methodologies able to capture the effects of policy on media and journalism.

Such research should be used to impact policymaking. It should be actively harnessed to reshape the governance ecosystem by injecting more accountability, diversity and openness into policymaking processes.

A Changing Business Climate

One of the most relevant issues affecting media and society, and the way public information and issues are handled and covered, relates to the changing business climate. The public service provision in the private sector is being torn away.

Media, journalism and society will benefit from more informed debates about the place of new business players within the wider political context. Understanding ‘who is who’ in this whole new environment, how decisions are made and by whom, and how this impacts the free flow of quality, critical information should be high on the media research agenda.

Overall, research should examine the structural conditions in which media operates. In advanced capitalist societies, commercial funding, particularly advertising revenues, plays a major role in shaping the media ecosystem. In developing countries, media systems are more dependent on state revenue. These structural conditions and the resources they create lead to particular mechanisms of control ranging from state censorship to media regulation to market-generated censorship.

Accountability and Trust

The focus on power should be closely linked with questions of accountability and trust. These concept are central to independent journalism and should be part of the media research agenda.

Data Ownership

Data is playing a major role in the new forms and formats of investigative journalism. Sifting through masses of data is increasingly part of standard journalistic work.

But a major issue is ownership and use of data. Data is part of the power architecture. Access to data is crucial for exerting influence.

Research about how owners of these repositories of information deal with authorities and governments should be on today’s media research agenda. What kind of deals and commitments do companies like Facebook and Google have with governments or local telcos, which in many cases are state-controlled? How does data journalism change or influence power relations? How do data change regulatory frameworks? Tackling these questions is essential to get to the nitty-gritty of shifting power dynamics and its implications for political economy and policy.

We at CMDS are redefining our research priorities, partnerships and funding model. Watch this space for more about our new strategy and mission. If you want to talk to us or receive updates, drop us an email to