Media fragmentation: a threat to democracy?

For many people who grow up in Australia, democracy is taken for granted. Turning 18 is a milestone for most teenagers not because of the right to vote, but because of the right to drink.

The first time I went to the polling booth at the age of 19, the decisions I made there were influenced by a variety of factors, not least my family and my studies. At that point, the role of the media in politics and in the decisions that I made as a member of the voting public was not something that I had thought about at any nuanced level.

Now, however, as an aspiring journalist and a student of Global Communications, the relationship between the media and politics is one that I find increasingly fascinating and important. Earlier this month I attended a public lecture held at RMIT as part of the Media, Communication and Democracy: Global and National Environments conference. The keynote speaker was Professor Paulo Mancini, from the University of Perugia, and a key focus of his research is the relationship between the media and democracy.

His argument was that while media fragmentation is not new, it is having more and more dramatic consequences that extend beyond the media, into politics and democracy. He associates the fragmentation of media with a ‘crisis in journalism’. Neither the notion of a crisis in journalism or media fragmentation are new ideas, but Mancini’s lecture clearly outlined the consequences of fragmentation, as he sees it, for democratic politics.

A key effect of fragmentation lies in the shift from mass audiences to niche audiences. No longer do people watch the same news at the same time on the prime television station of the nation; no longer is TV a ‘central space’, as sociologist Elihu Katz argued in 1996.

Australia may be unusual in having only one national general interest broadsheet. In theory perhaps The Australian could function as a ‘central space’, but the paper’s strident ideological views and relatively minor weekday sales of around 130,000 negate this idea.

While 70% of Australia’s print media is owned by News Limited, suggesting a possible argument against the idea of media fragmentation, newspapers are now just one ‘fragment’ of the media environment. The fragmentation of which Mancini speaks is a fragmentation of media systems and forms – so that journalism is spread across a variety of mediums, from newspapers and TV to blogs and YouTube.

According to the MEAA’s 2010 Life in the Clickstream report, 26% of people said that the internet was their main source of news. With online journalism offering opportunities for niche markets like never before, fragmentation of the media audience is also occurring. The audience is fragmented because the forms are.

As Mancini outlined in his lecture, niche audiences create a problem of polarisation whereby ‘people talk to other people already sharing the same opinion’. The idea of a universal public sphere comes to an end, and with it comes severe consequences for a functioning democracy that is able to negotiate between different perspectives and points of view.

This idea dovetails with aspects of Lindsay Tanner’s argument in Sideshow. Tanner argues that media outlets desperate to hang onto audiences (thanks to fragmentation and increased competition) tend not to challenge their audience’s views, but rather to reinforce them with increasingly strident rhetoric and sensationalism. Sideshow attracted the ire of a number of journalists and commentators who resent the blame that Tanner levels at the media, but he does argue persuasively that the relationship between the media and politics in Australia is increasingly destructive, with negative consequences for democracy.

Mancini indicated several times in his talk that it is emerging and fragile democracies that are most at risk of the effects of media fragmentation, including polarisation and a diminished ability of the media to play the role of watchdog over government. Yet even in Australia, in a strong and stable democracy, there is a persuasive argument for the case that our sphere of public debate is increasingly fraught.

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