On Media Diversity from the User Perspective

I’m writing tonight from the frozen tundra of Amsterdam, where I just took part in an interesting workshop hosted by the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Information Law on Media Diversity from the User Perspective.

One of the issues I address in Audience Evolution is the way that media policy may need to respond to the changing relationship between media organizations and their audiences.  This issue was the focal point of this workshop, which was devoted to the question of if and how policymakers should integrate the changing dynamics of audiences’ media consumption into their media diversity policy priorities.  Specifically, this workshop posed the question of whether policymakers should focus on diversity less in terms of the diversity of sources and content available and more in terms of content and sources that audiences actually consume.

Traditionally, media diversity policy has focused on the nature of the sources and content available to audiences, with relatively little regard for the extent to which audiences are exposed to a diversity of sources.  In today’s highly fragmented media environment, in which audiences have access to an unprecendented array of content options, but in which attention tends to cluster around a select few information sources, it seems reasonable to ask whether exposure diversity should be of greater concern to policymakers.  This of course is treacherous territory, as it raises the specter of policymakers potentially intruding to some extent upon consumer sovereignty and at the very least taking a more paternalistic approach to media audiences than generally has been accepted here in the U.S.

I argued in my presentation, however, that today’s collection of circumstances may represent a unique policy window that could allow concerns about exposure diversity — and concerns about the nature of media users’ behavior more broadly — to find a more prominent place in media policy dialogues than has been the case in years past.  The bottom line is that in today’s increasingly de-institutionalized media environment, in which the array of content options available is increasingly difficult to capture empirically, and in which audiences have increasing control over when, where, and how they engage with media, it would seem to make sense for policymakers’ analytical focus to move a bit closer to the point of consumption, and to look at whether there might be technological or institutional barriers that are limiting the extent to which audiences access a diverse array of content options from a diverse array of sources.

This perspective seems to be resonating a bit in the policy arena.  We’ve seen, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission recently pose a range of questions related to the dynamics of audiences’ media consumption and production in its ongoing Future of Media proceeding and quadrennial Media Ownership proceeding.  For instance in the Media Ownership proceeding, the Commission posed questions related to audience exposure such as:

As an alternative to measuring the ‘supply’ of content to assess viewpoint diversity, should we take a ‘demand side’ approach and utilize measures of audience satisfaction and media consumption as proxies for viewpoint diversity? 

And:

What role should consumer satisfaction or media consumption play in evaluating source diversity?

In the Future of Media proceeding, the Commission has posed questions such as:

Compared to earlier decades, are Americans more or less likely to seek and find more specialized media (i.e., that focused on a specific topic, appealing to a specific demographic group, or promoting a similar ideology or world view)?

And:

What are the positive and negative consequences of such patterns?

The Commission also posed questions related to the nature of audiences’ media production activities, such as:

How can communities best make use of citizens’ talents and interests in the creation, analysis, curating, and sharing of information?

And:

What role will and should user-generated journalism play?

These questions represent bold new territory for U.S.  media policymakers, but the evolving nature of media audiences demands that these questions be asked and answered and factored into the calculus of contemporary media policymaking.

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