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date: 16 August 2017

Public Service Broadcasting, Hard News, and Citizens’ Knowledge of Current Affairs

Summary and Keywords

Public service broadcasters are a central part of national news media environments in most advanced democracies. Although their market positions can vary considerably between countries, they are generally seen to enhance democratic culture, pursuing a more serious and harder news agenda compared to commercial media . . . But to what extent is this perspective supported by empirical evidence? How far can we generalize that all public service news media equally pursue a harder news agenda than commercial broadcasters? And what impact does public service broadcasting have on public knowledge? Does exposure to public service broadcasting increase citizens’ knowledge of current affairs, or are they only regularly viewed by citizens with an above average interest in politics and hard news?

The overview of the evidence provided by empirical research suggests that citizens are more likely to be exposed to hard news, and be more knowledgeable about current affairs, when they watch public service news—or rather news in media systems where public service is well funded and widely watched. The research evidence also suggests there are considerable variations between public broadcasters, just as there are between more market-driven and commercial media. An important limitation of previous research is related to the question of causality. Therefore, a main challenge for future research is to determine not only if public service broadcasting is the preferred news provider of most knowledgeable citizens, but also whether it more widely improves and increases citizens’ knowledge about public affairs.

Keywords: public service broadcasting, media systems, television, information environments, news content, hard news, news exposure, news audience, political knowledge, informed democracy

Whether catching an evening newscast, reading the local newspaper, or browsing online, the news media are the dominant source of information for most people in advanced Western democracies. In recent years, the news landscape has radically expanded, with new content and social media platforms—from Facebook to Twitter and Buzzfeed—challenging the dominance of old print and broadcast media formats. This expansion of news might, on the face of it, appear a radically pluralist development, since it enhances the choice of information for citizens in a democracy. But with an ever-expanding menu of information sources, concerns have been raised about the democratic value of news provision and whether citizens are becoming better informed about—or engaged with—what is happening in the world (Aalberg & Curran, 2012; Cushion, 2012). In other words, the enhanced quantity of news should not presuppose the quality of it.

Of course, “news” is a broad genre and can range from stories of celebrities like Kim Kardashian to more highbrow issues about politics and public affairs. While soft and hard news categories can overlap (Reinemann, Stanyer, Legnante, & Scherr, 2012), in this article our concern is with the latter and, more to the point, how well different media systems enhance citizens’ knowledge and understanding of hard news issues that affect them as citizens in a democracy. Since the choice and apparent diversity of news on different platforms is largely driven by commercially oriented media, we consider the evidence about whether publicly funded journalism remains relevant and distinctive from what the market supplies. Our focus is television news—still the most widely consumed format of news, in most democracies (Cushion, 2015)—and on reviewing the most recent literature analyzing the content and reception of news produced by competing media systems.

Above all, the aim of this chapter is to deliver an evidence-based assessment of the supply and quality of hard news reporting in public and more commercially driven news media, and how this may influence public awareness of current affairs. We begin by providing some brief context to comparative research of media systems and the role and purpose of public service broadcasters in an increasingly deregulated and commercially crowded news culture. In the next section, the concepts of “political information environment” (Aalberg, Aelst, & Curran, 2010; Esser et al., 2012) and “hard news” (Reinemann et al., 2012) are introduced. We consider the research evidence about how well competing media systems cultivate informed democracies, exploring the relationship between media ownership, the information environment, and the supply of hard news. In doing so, we take a closer look at audience studies that have investigated the role public serve broadcasting plays in the supply of hard news, and the possible influence they wield in the level and distribution of current affairs knowledge among citizens.

Comparing Media Systems and the Role of Public Broadcasting

In recent years, communication scholars have begun to pay closer attention to interpreting media systems in comparative studies (Esser & Hanitzsch, 2012). One reason behind this trend is that cross-national comparative studies allow scholars to generalize their findings as the world becomes more globalized, moving beyond the narrow prism of a nation to explore patterns and trends internationally. While comparing national media markets was once limited to relatively small N analysis (Siebert et al., 1956), scholars today cast their net far wider and include a much larger N for comparative analysis. Norris (2004), for example, examined 135 countries to explore whether journalistic independence and people’s access to media corresponded to good governance and human development. More recently, however, it is Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) systematic assessment of 18 countries that has become the dominant focal point in comparative media systems research. In comparing the characteristics of journalism and political identities, their analysis led to the construction of three media system models, which grouped together nations based on a range of dimensions such as ownership patterns, regulation, and media independence from political parties. They have since extended their approach beyond North American and European nations in an edited volume, encouraging scholars to develop new frameworks that help systematically examine and compare Western and non-Western media systems (Hallin & Mancini, 2012).

Hallin and Mancini’s approach—in both books—was, in their words, “oriented towards theory-building rather than hypothesis testing” (Hallin & Mancini, 2012, p. 4). One of their key comparative dimensions was the role of the state in influencing different media systems cross-nationally, with the three models being split along the following lines: strong state intervention (Polarized pluralists), strong state intervention and strong public service broadcasting (Democratic corporatist), or market dominated and weak public service broadcasting (Liberal). In our view, Hallin and Mancini’s (2004) comparative assessment about the role of the state in media systems research does not rigorously examine the impact of different public service broadcast models nor does it consider the value of its news output to citizens in many advanced Western democracies. Most strikingly, for example, the United Kingdom is grouped with the United States in the Liberal model despite boasting one of the largest and most respected public service broadcasters (the BBC) in the world. Moreover, the United Kingdom has an overarching public service framework, with broadcast licenses that ensure the commercial broadcasters, such as ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5, have regulatory obligations in respect to news delivery (Cushion, 2015). It has long been documented, by contrast, that the United States has limited provision in public broadcasting (McChesney, 1993), receiving little funding compared to many other advanced Western democracies and attracts a tiny share of the audience (see Table 1).

Table 1. Public Service Broadcasting: An International Comparison.

Country

Market share (%) of the national PSB

Main source of funding of the PSB

Total public funding per year (€ million, 2011)

License fee per year (€, 2012)

Per capita public funding per year (€, 2011)

Number of national viewers per € million of public funding (2009)

Austria

35.3 (2012)

license fee

548

194

70

6,371

Belgium (wallonia/flanders)

20.9 (2012)/

31.6 (2012)

taxes/taxes

513

100/—

51

6,726

Bulgaria

8.5(2012)

taxes

CzechRepublic

29.3(2012)

license fee

86

Denmark

65.9(2012)

license fee

492

324

88

4,262

Estonia

19.0(2012)

taxes

Finland

42.0(2012)

taxes

415

252

82

6,852

France

24.6(2012)

license fee

3,272

125

52

8,537

Germany

42.8(2012)

license fee

7,275

216

94

4,143

Hungary

13.3(2012)

taxes

Ireland

29.6(2012)

license fee

184

160

40

7,286

Italy

43.3(2003)

license fee

1,708

112

29

15,371

Latvia

13.3(2012)

taxes

Lithuania

9.9(2012)

taxes

Netherlands

23.7(2013)

taxes

558c(2007)

34(2007)

Poland

32.4(2012)

advertising

61

Portugal

17.3(2012)

license fee

27

Spain

14.7(2012)

revenue tax on private broadcasters and telecommunication operators

2,335

51

6,090

Sweden

31.0(2012)

license fee

804

239

88

8,768

United Kingdom

53.7(2011)

license fee

4,653

179

73

7,429

Iceland

56.3(2012)

taxes

Norway

41.0(2012)

license fee

641

345

136

5,092

Switzerland

30.0(2013)

license fee

995

384

124

4,296

Turkey

3.3(2010)

2% mark-up on electricity bill

Australia

18.4(2010)

taxes

900

40

6,311

Canada

5.5(2012)

taxes

861

25

3,342

Israel

10.0(2006)

license fee

116e

Japan

20.0(2010)

license fee

6,413

149u

50

5,750

New Zealand

62.0(2013)

advertising

69

16

163,793

United States

2.0(2011)

donations

792

3

6,617(2008)

Russian Federation

32.1(2011)

taxes

Source: Adapted from Rövekamp (2014), with added info on the United States from EAO (2012).

Table 1 reveals that the status of public service broadcasters and their market impact can vary considerably between nations. In contrast to the highly fragmented and mostly commercial American media sector, in virtually every other Western democratic nation-state there are a mix of private and public broadcasters. In many cases, public broadcasters are also the dominant media outlet, both in terms of audience size and in terms of quality and independence. In western and northern regions of Europe, for example, public service broadcasters have historically been championed by governments (Humphreys, 1996). Typically they attract one third or more of the national television audience. In contrast, audiences for public service channels in Canada, Australia, and the United States, as well as many countries in eastern and southern Europe, tend to be significantly smaller. The best funded public broadcasters, such as the United Kingdom’s BBC, Germany’s ARD/ZDF, and the various Scandinavian public broadcasters, tend to receive the lion’s share of their funding from license fees. Since broadcasting is inextricably connected to public policy-making, national governments have shaped different regulatory environments, funding systems and cultural aims. In the Netherlands, for instance, the license fee was replaced with direct government appropriations beginning in 2000, with one result being a gradual decline of funding in subsequent years (Papathanassopoulos, 2007, pp. 155–156).

The license fee itself is defended by many as a guarantee of autonomy and the means to provide a direct link between broadcasters and the public. As Papathanassopoulos (2007, p. 156) argues, in contrast to the license fee, “Direct public or government funding may, in one way or another, seriously affect public broadcasters’ independence, or in the best case, the public perception of their independence.” In addition to establishing a buffer against dramatic changes in governmental funding, the license fee has historically had “a social dimension,” in that “by contributing to their national public broadcaster, citizens felt that it was more accountable to them than to the politicians” (Papathanassopoulos, 2007, p. 156). The direct charitable contributions from local citizens to local stations are said to serve a similar role in the American context (Benson & Powers, 2011, p. 12). However, license fees can be subject to political influence and pressure. In the United Kingdom, for example, the BBC’s license fee has recently been frozen, and a new 2015 Conservative government aims to reduce the size and scope of the public service broadcaster. The license fee, then, is not in itself a guarantee of institutional independence, as is evident in Italy, where a survey showed that only 4% of respondents believed Rai to be politically independent (Hanretty, 2009, p. 61). In Hanretty’s (2009) cross-national comparative study, the Italian public broadcaster Rai is listed as one of the least independent of the 36 broadcasters examined. Needless to say, journalistic autonomy and independence from political pressures are crucial to ensuring broadcasters remain objective, ensuring editors and journalists have the freedom to pursue stories in the manner consistent with the goals of public service broadcasting. These goals are worth considering as public broadcasters attempt to withstand threats towards their institutional independence and from competing in an increasingly commercialized media environment.

The funding crises that many public service broadcasters have experienced in recent years further suggest that many politicians and the public are skeptical about the role these broadcasters can (and should) play in the future. To remain relevant in a 21st century media landscape, in more recent years, public service broadcasters have become known as public service media in order to reflect their new supply of online and social media platforms (Donders, Pauwels, & Loisen, 2012). Nevertheless, while acknowledging the different media systems around the world and the evolution towards new media formats, broadly understood public service broadcasting remains associated with supplying content that is seen as enhancing the “public good” and serving the needs of citizens. According to Hendy (2012, p. 27), public service broadcasting’s fundamental goal is “advancing human enlightenment.” To achieve such a lofty ambition, it has long been argued that public service broadcasters should be distinctive from commercial competitors and should pursue normative values such as producing appealing content to all citizens—including minority groups—and pursuing an editorially diverse and independent agenda (Tracey, 1988). As content is distributed by new platforms and formats, the underlying ethos of public service broadcasters remains similar but is renegotiated by public service media (Larsen, 2010).

Public service broadcasters have faced increasing criticism from their commercial counterparts for stifling the growth and innovation of market-driven media. After all, in countries well funded by tax or license fees (see Table 1), public service broadcasters might have more resources at their disposal than market competitors. However, Simon’s (2013) analysis of 14 nations with a mixture of public and private media suggests public service broadcasters enhance rather than diminish the quality of media culture more generally. He empathetically concluded that: “countries with well-resourced public service broadcasters that invest high levels in originated programming, and which offer diverse TV channels which are regarded as being high quality tend also to have desirable market outcomes in which commercial broadcasters generate significant revenues per capita, invest in high levels in originations per capita, and offer diverse TV channels which are regarded as being high quality” (Simon, 2013, 14).

Indeed, a central justification for public service broadcasting is that it strengthens the democratic process by securing easy access to news and current affairs. Put simply, the argument is as follows: commercial media need audiences and advertisers to survive; market incentives lead to the overproduction of content that is popular, and a lack of information necessary to meaningfully inform and empower citizens about public affairs. In short, public service broadcasters are intended to help citizens get more of the information they need, particularly information that commercial media cannot or will not provide.

Our intention in the next section is to develop an empirical assessment about the democratic value of news in light of debates about the commercialization and deregulation of media systems over recent decades. Our approach takes advantage of the huge growth in journalism studies and political communication literature in recent years (Esser & Hanitzsch, 2012). The focus, in particular, is on evidence supporting—or challenging—the proposition that public service broadcasters supply distinctive news from their commercial counterparts, and better enhance people’s knowledge and understanding of politics and public affairs. We turn first to the empirical evidence about the comparative supply of news in public and commercial media systems.

Political Information Environments and the Supply of Hard News

The “political information environment” has been used as a concept to interpret the overall flow of news cross-nationally (Aalberg et al., 2010; Esser et al., 2012; Jerit et al., 2006). Since media markets have become increasingly commercialized (Hallin & Mancini, 2004), examining the extent, source and prominence of information about politics in news cultures can provide some insight into the opportunities citizens have to learn about public affairs. Put more simply, access to information can enhance political knowledge as one of the “greatest opportunities to learn about politics is provided by the mass media” (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996, p. 112). Aalberg, Aelst, and Curran’s (2010) 20-year schedule analysis (1987–2007) of the supply of television news in six Western nations systemically compared output in public and commercially driven media systems. They found that in “countries where public television has a stronger standing, the public are offered more prime-time news and current affairs, not only by PBS channels but also by commercial ones” (Aalberg et al., 2010, p. 266). In other words, the presence of public service broadcasting within a national media ecology appeared to mitigate the influences of commercial television channels and ensure news continued to be scheduled at peak time. In the market-driven environment of the United States, for example, there was a distinct lack of news programming, and over time they found less peak time current affairs shows on the most popular channels.

Esser et al. (2012) developed a similar schedule analysis of 13 countries over 30 years (1977–2007) to compare the supply of news on different media systems in a period when many European broadcast ecologies were deregulated and commercialized. Comparing the top two public service and commercial broadcasters in each country, they found market-driven channels gradually enhanced the availability of news—from news in briefs and interview programming to more conventional newscasts and magazine shows—challenging the belief that commercialization has diminished the supply of news (see Figure 1). At the same time, the study established that public service channels generally delivered more news than their commercial counterparts. This finding was also supported by van Santen and Vliegenthart (2013), who found, based on Dutch TV programming over a 50-year period, that commercial broadcasters spent less time on information but more time on infotainment and entertainment than the Dutch public service channels.

Public Service Broadcasting, Hard News, and Citizens’ Knowledge of Current AffairsClick to view larger

Figure 1. Supply of political information programs on public channels and commercial channels in 13 European countries (in minutes), 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.

Source: Adapted from Esser et al. (2012).

Esser et al. (2012) do nevertheless suggest that the presence of public service broadcasting within a nation can indirectly influence the information supply of news. They write, the “overall increase in political information programs on the most-watched general-interest channels in Europe may also be a reflection of an ongoing public debate about the role of television in democracy that pressurizes both private and public channels to pay tribute to their informational role” (Esser et al., 2012, pp. 268–269). However, an important limitation to studying schedules is they cannot provide evidence on the quality of information provided. Esser and his colleagues therefore speculate about whether or not the positive effect of the growing amount of information is at least partly wiped out by rising levels of soft news that are of little democratic value.

But scholars have sought to make value judgements about the quality of news. Reinemann et al. (2012, p. 234) define hard news as stories that are relevant politically and for society as a whole, based on impersonal and unemotional reporting. Soft news, on the other hand, is viewed as less political and more focused on individual relevance, personal and emotional reporting. Many scholars see the softening of news as an example of the damaging effects of commercialization and suggest that it can diminish the quality of journalism and have wider negative consequences for democratic discourse. Others, however, point to possible positive effect, because it may include audiences who usually are less interested in political affairs (Baum, 2002). Research evidence about longitudinal changes in the supply of hard versus soft news is mixed and can be divided into three camps (Reinemann et al., 2012).

Some studies suggest that news has not become “softer” over recent decades. For instance, Scott and Gobetz (1992) examined three U.S. national news networks, from 1972 to 1987, and found the amount of soft news per broadcast remained small by comparison to hard news. Similarly, a Norwegian study from 1993 to 2007 suggested that the majority of televised news output could be classified as hard news, and that the levels had not fallen over time (Waldahl et al., 2009).

Another group of studies, by comparison, found evidence of a “softening” of news content. Patterson’s (2000) study, for instance, concluded that, between 1980 and 1999, U.S. news had become less concerned with issues of public policy and more sensationalist, pursuing more human interest stories that were more about individuals than society as a whole. In Germany, Donsbach and Büttner (2005) identified a reduction in political stories in the majority of newscasts studied during election campaigns from 1983 to 1998. Finally, Sinardet et al. (2004) compared television news in the Dutch and French speaking parts of Belgium from 1993 to 2000 and discovered that a lot of hard news had been replaced by soft news in the Dutch language channels but not in the French. Maier et al. (2009) examined German television newscasts on seven channels between 1992 and 2007. Their results showed a difference between public service channels and their commercial rivals; where there was a linear increase of non-political content in commercial channels, this was not the case on the public service channels.

A few comparative studies have also started to look into the difference between public service and commercial broadcasters and their supply of hard and soft news. One of the first comprehensive comparative studies was an exploration (Tove, Thorbjørnsrud, & Aalberg, 2012) of six Western democracies, which was part of a wider study on how media inform democracies. Tove and colleagues found that the public broadcasters included in their study dedicated more time to hard news in their main evening newscast than commercial broadcasters, but some also provided more soft news than their commercial competitors (Tove et al., 2012, p. 71). These differences also hold true for the framing of news. Overall, public service broadcasters were found to offer more thematic news, while commercial television contained more episodic and domestic news (Tove et al., 2012, pp. 73–77). Similarly, Aalberg et al.’s (2013) study of public service providers across nine different countries showed they supplied more hard news on foreign affairs than commercial broadcasters, which pursued more of an international soft news agenda. This may be a response to corporate demands for larger profits, as it is costly to assemble hard, thematic news, especially in foreign countries.

A similar approach, but with an even wider scope, was conducted by Carsten Reinemann and colleagues (2016). In their study, covering 16 Western democracies, they discovered that public service broadcasters in general provided more hard news than commercial television networks, even after controlling for how commercialized the media system was. Hence, one of their main conclusions was that the “ecological effects” of strong public service television is that it appears to contribute to a general climate in which media are more likely to report about politics in more substantial ways. As Reinemann put it “The PSB market share (media market shares being indicators that represent the size of audiences that are used to and prefer certain ways of political reporting) also seems to affect the standards to which other media adhere when reporting politics” (Reinemann et al., 2016, p. 148). However, it does not follow that public service broadcasters with large audiences automatically foster hard news environments. For instance, while widely watched, the Italian public service broadcaster does not seem to generate a lot of hard news (Aalberg et al., 2013).

Of course, the supply of information and hard news cannot be casually connected to how audiences understand or interpret news programming. The availability of news and people’s exposure to it need to be carefully interrogated in light of how it enhances understanding of politics and public affairs. We now turn to addressing the question of causality.

Why Public Service Media and Hard News Matter: Enhancing Public Knowledge

So far we have focused on how news content produced by competing funding models or regulatory responsibilities may be significantly different. In this section, we consider how public service providers and different media systems may impact citizens’ knowledge of current affairs. After all, the delivery of a substantive amount of hard news is not sufficient to maintaining the health of a liberal democracy if the civic value of this news is not transformed into an informed citizenry.

A typical argument in many of the comparative studies presented above has been that public media systems provide greater opportunities for citizens to encounter informative news and therefore learn from it (Aalberg & Curran, 2012; Curran, Iyengar, Lund, & Salovaara-Moring, 2009; Iyengar et al., 2010; Soroka et al., 2013). Put simply, countries that support and help fund public service broadcasting, and who therefore tend to offer a larger share of substantive news-content during peak viewing hours, are considered to cultivate a better learning environment than market-driven media systems because less quality news is available.

These favorable opportunity structures are determined not only by the sheer volume of news and information programs, but also by their extensive distribution throughout the TV schedule. Their placement of news and current affairs between popular shows, and their allocation to an attractive timeslot is seen to engage “inadvertent” audiences, such as viewers who had not planned to watch the news, but who could not help encountering it while awaiting delivery of their favorite entertainment program (Robinson, 1973, p. 426). The ability to capture inadvertent audiences is said to be a defining characteristic of European public service television because news programs are broadcast more frequently during times of peak viewing, thus assuring that even less motivated citizens would encounter the news (Curran et al., 2009; Iyengar et al., 2010).

The democratic value of reaching inadvertent audiences was first recognized by Blumler (1970, p. 83), who praised it as a smart “trap” for catching and educating the politically uninterested. Several recent empirical studies have supported this thesis. For instance, as Aalberg and Curran (2012, p. 198) demonstrate, the knowledge gap between the interested and the uninterested is relatively small in many of the European countries, while the gap is quite dramatic in the United States. Citizens who were very interested in politics and who declared that they follow domestic politics closely, were indeed very well informed across all countries and media systems, including the commercial U.S. system. But while uninterested citizens in Europe still managed to be relatively well informed, this was not the case in the United States. On average, this group knew the answer to only 25% of domestic hard news questions (see Table 2). In Europe, domestic hard news knowledge was much higher among citizens not interested in politics (ranging from an average of 49% in the United Kingdom to 70% in the Netherlands). The authors therefore concluded that the political communication culture of the United States gives rise to a large cohort, with high political interest, which is well informed about domestic political affairs. But the same political culture also incubates a substantial minority without political interest, who have limited exposure to the news media, and who therefore remain politically uninformed.

Table 2. Knowledge of Domestic Political Affairs by Level of Interest and News Attention.

Norway

Sweden

Belgium

Netherlands

United Kingdom

United States

Political interest

Very interested

0.86

0.92

0.83

0.92

0.85

0.87

Quite interested

0.82

0.85

0.72

0.86

0.72

0.65

Hardly or not at all interested

0.63

0.65

0.56

0.70

0.49

0.25

Domestic news attention

Follow it closely

0.89

0.90

0.77

0.90

0.81

0.83

Follow it partly

0.78

0.78

0.66

0. 79

0.64

0.49

Do not follow it

0.63

0.63

0.55

0.69

0.49

0.25

Note: Knowledge of domestic political affairs (national hard news) is the average score on an index (with values between 0 and 1) measuring citizens ability to identify two ministers, one member of parliament, the head of the central bank, the national unemployment rate, and a national disputed policy. Respondents are grouped according to (a) how interested they were in politics. and (b) how closely they follow domestic politics in the news.

Source: Aalberg and Curran (2012, p. 198).

It was concluded that the larger and increased knowledge gap in the market-oriented U.S. media system indicates that learning in the high choice U.S. context is a more active process than, say, many European countries. For it requires U.S. citizens to work harder, to actively seek out the news. The more extensive information environments offered by media systems with stronger public service providers, by contrast, stimulate more passive learning. This argument is supported empirically by Shehata (2013) who, based on Swedish panel data, found that exposure to news at election time had stronger effects on current affairs learning among citizens with lower levels of general political knowledge. As general knowledge increased, he argued, the positive learning effects of watching news and election programs became weaker. This happened despite the fact that these programs were watched less extensively by this group of citizens, simply because they learned more from news exposure than high-information groups, that learn nothing or much less (2013, p. 214). In a later study, Shehata, Hopmann, and Höijer (2015) demonstrate that the knowledge growth that occur among public service viewers is independent of their political motivation and news attention, and that such learning even is more pronounced among viewers lacking an interest in politics. Shehata thus concluded that “the smaller current affairs knowledge gaps found in public-service oriented countries are, at least partly, the result of passive learning from television inadvertent audiences who are captured by the extensive political information opportunities provided by the major television channels” (Shehata, 2013, p. 217).

However, Shehata (2013) did not control for the different effects of exposure to public service versus commercial media. As in other countries, his data suggested that the most knowledgeable citizens tend to prefer public service channels over commercial channels, while the less informed watch commercial news to a larger extent rather than public service news (see also Aarts & Semetko, 2003). Similar conclusions were reached in Jenssen’s (2008) and Strömbäck’s (2016) studies of media exposure and political knowledge, but while, Jenssens’ study did not indicate that exposure to news, from either the state-owned public broadcaster or the main commercial broadcaster, increased the general level of political knowledge, after controlling for voters’ level of political knowledge four years earlier, Strömbäck clearly demonstrates that exposure to public service TV news leads to positive knowledge effects, whereas exposure to commercial TV news has negative knowledge effects.

In our view, an important innovation in media effects research is to control for self–selection tendencies within particular audiences. Such controls are included in the Soroka et al. (2013) study of current affairs knowledge in six countries as well as in Fraile and Iyengar’s (2014) study of factual political knowledge in 27 European countries. Soroka and his colleagues found that, compared to commercial news, public service broadcasters had a positive influence on news knowledge. However, not all public service providers were equally effective in this way (the effect of exposure to the Italian PBS was even negative). In the United Kingdom, there was a clear positive effect of exposure to news from public service broadcasters and a clear negative effect of exposure to commercial news. Also controlling for self-selection of news, Fraile and Iyengar (2014) identified that public broadcasters had more informative effects than commercial broadcasters on unmotivated citizens, but exposure to broadsheet newspapers overshadowed the positive effect of public service news exposure.

The empirical evidence reviewed so far clearly suggests that differences in the national supply of news influences how much citizens know about politics and current affairs, but also the type of knowledge learned (Aalberg et al., 2013; Curran et al., 2009). For instance, a pattern found in many studies is that Americans are less informed about international news compared to people in less market-driven countries (Aalberg et al., 2013). In their study of television newscasts and public opinion in 11 countries across five continents, Aalberg and colleagues analyzed the relationship between the supply and demand for international television news and more widely considered its consequences for foreign affairs knowledge. They generally found that more market-oriented media systems did include international news, but the focus was more on soft, not hard, news. Important in this context is the rather strong positive relationship between international news coverage and citizens’ level of foreign affairs knowledge (See Figure 2).

Public Service Broadcasting, Hard News, and Citizens’ Knowledge of Current AffairsClick to view larger

Figure 2. The relationship between supply and knowledge of international hard news. International hard news knowledge refers to national averages based on the four questions that were asked across all 11 countries (Copenhagen Summit, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, and Taliban). International hard news coverage is measured as the percentage of total news (including international, domestic, hard, and soft). AS, Australia; CA, Canada; CO, Colombia; GR, Greece; IN, India; IT, Italy; JP, Japan; NO, Norway; KR, South Korea; UK, United Kingdom; US, United States.

Source: Adapted from Aalberg et al. (2013).

Perhaps one of the most important types of current affairs knowledge for citizens to have, in order to participate in democratic societies, is their ability to describe the issue positions of the main political parties. In order to cast their vote for the parties and candidates who support their preferred policies, they need to know the positions of competing parties. As Jenssen, Aalberg, and Aarts (2012) demonstrate, a surprisingly large number of respondents in their study found it impossible to describe the issue positions of different political parties (2012, p. 144). Among citizens with low knowledge of hard current affairs news, more than half of the respondents were typically unable to describe the parties issue position. Jenssen et al. (2012) investigated if the media was able to help to lift people out of this political ignorance. Their data suggested that exposure to public service TV news stood out as having the most positive effect, while exposure to news from commercial broadcasters was less important. In a similar study using the European Election Study from 2009, Banducci, Giebler, and Kritzinger (2015) showed that citizens who obtain their information via quality news outlets (including public service broadcasters) had a better understanding about political issues. Voters who received their information through low quality outlets, on the other hand, were less likely to determine parties’ policy positions.

Finally, it is also worth noting the debate between scholars about whether soft news and entertainment meaningfully contributes to political learning and knowledge. For instance, Baum (2002, 2003) argues that people who would otherwise not watch any news at all do pay attention to soft news coverage and thus benefit from this source. But Prior (2003) has criticized Baum and others who argue that soft news formats contribute to democratic discourse. Prior’s study showed that people like soft news for its entertainment value and that soft news programs are still not very popular compared to hard news and pure entertainment. There is also only very limited evidence that viewers actually learn from soft news. Kim and Vishak (2008), for example, found that compared to hard news media, entertainment media and soft news were less effective in acquiring factual information, particularly in retaining issue and procedure knowledge. Studying the comparative dimensions of hard and soft news content and citizens knowledge, Hahn, Iyengar, Aelst, and Curran (2012) similarly concluded that Europeans attend to both hard and soft news, while Americans had a tendency to attend to one but not the other. Consequently, Americans also emerge as much less informed about soft news compared with Europeans. They find no comparative evidence indicating that the tendency of Americans to “specialize” in soft news helps boost political knowledge or reduce information gaps in citizens’ comprehension of current affairs. However, in a comparative study of the United Kingdom, Spain and Denmark, Albæk, Dalen, Jebril, and de Vreese (2014) find that exposure to conflict and human interest frames, often associated with soft journalism and commercial broadcasting, may make political news more accessible, and may increase learning and political knowledge, particularly for the less interested segments of the population.

Conclusions: Future Research Exploring Media Systems and Current Affairs Knowledge

This article has offered a review of the arguments and evidence put forward by the international academic literature on the relationship between public service broadcasting, hard news, and citizen knowledge. One of our main conclusions was that citizens are more likely to be exposed to hard news and be more knowledgeable about current affairs if they watch public service news, or news in public-service dominated media systems, compared to more market-driven news environments. However, an important lesson to be drawn from our review is that national media systems vary considerably in the balance between public service broadcasting and commercially oriented media. This makes it hard to generalize too widely. But the evidence suggests that the quality of the information environment and the positive effect of public service providers is based on institutional independence, while commercial broadcasters clearly provide the citizens with more news opportunities if they need to comply with certain regulations.

Despite the amount of news steadily increasing over recent decades, with more commercial choice and news culture competition, the article suggests that public service media remain distinctive from market-driven news and are clearly more effective in engendering informed citizenship. The evidence reveals that public service media—and media systems where public service broadcasting plays a central role—produce the most informative type of news when it comes to serving citizens in a democracy. This is a crucial insight in the age of commercialized media policy making, since public service media around the world face increasing scrutiny about their value to citizens and society at large, not least by market competitors eager to pounce on evidence of deteriorating standards and to criticize the use of public funds. Based on the current research evidence, we believe that public service media deliver high value for money, providing a meaningful alternative to the increasing range of commercial media sources. Equally important is it that they provide commercial media with competition, influencing the wider culture of news and enhancing editorial standards.

As public broadcasters negotiate their role and presence as public service media in the 21st century, they will of course face great pressure and competition in the new digital environment. Audiences have an ever increasing choice of media source, and their expectations may change in how news is packaged and delivered. As scholars increasingly turn their attention to examining how news is conveyed on social media platforms, and in the online world more generally, empirical evidence is needed to inform policy debates about the future funding and direction of public service media. Although this chapter has shown that public broadcasters produce high quality news that is distinctive from their commercial competitors, the democratic value of online and social media output also needs to be carefully assessed.

An important limitation in most empirical studies relates to the question of causality. Put simply, more research is needed to determine whether or not public service broadcasting is the preferred news provider by the most knowledgeable citizens, or whether public service media genuinely improves and increases citizens’ knowledge, regardless of previous knowledge. A couple of studies do suggest this to be the case, but this issue of causality warrants more sustained scholarly attention. Future studies should also look into the effect on current affairs knowledge from online news consumption, investigating whether new content and social media platforms report news differently, and how they might influence people’s knowledge and understanding of the world.

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