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Media Freedom and Pluralism

Beata Klimkiewicz

Section 3: structural regulation: media pluralism, concentration, diversity of content and services

Chapter 13. The link That Matters: Media Concentration and Diversity of Content

Zrinjka Peruško

Texte intégral

13.1. Introduction

1In today’s information societies, the media are increasingly viewed as part of the service economy. They provide jobs and revenues, and they have strong lobbies against any policy that might reduce their profits, enhanced by integration tendencies that lead to market concentration. In addition to valuing the media’s role in the new information economies, many governments still value the political and social role of the media, the success of which is based on diversity and pluralism.

2The relationship of media market concentration and media diversity and pluralism is a complex topic of contemporary European media policies, where pluralism of the media is seen as the main public goal for the media sector, relating to political aims like deliberation, participation, and democracy, as well as to social aims like social cohesion and cultural diversity. Media pluralism is usually seen to be threatened by media concentration trends of the media markets at national, regional, and global levels. This perceived threat has spurred much policy-oriented debate (and some policy) in the European Union, and more actual policy within individual European countries. It has also instigated significant research (both by policymakers and by independent research agencies) aimed at showing the relationship between media concentration (or, more precisely, the characteristics of the media market) and media pluralism and diversity (defined in various ways, from diversity of ownership to diversity and pluralism of content-output).

3Still, all the efforts at serious transnational regulation of media concentration are based on one point: the evidence of the negative influence of media concentration on media pluralism and diversity. The relationship (or its negative consequences) is often discounted by media groups, and policymakers sometimes take refuge in the “not proven” verdict to delay making decisions that might curtail market developments in the media sector.

4In this chapter I show what evidence of the relationship already exists and point to the lacunae of research in view of future policy action.

13.2. Policy-triggered or commissioned research

5One of the first comprehensive efforts to look for evidence of the relationship was instigated by the Council of Europe Committee of experts on media concentrations and pluralism (MM-CM). MM-CM commissioned Gillian Doyle to review the existing studies and literature in order to “assess whether, on balance, media concentrations have a positive or negative impact on pluralism” (Doyle, 1997). In economic terms, concentration is a characteristic of a market in which the competition of companies is constrained to different degrees. The extreme example of concentration is a monopoly, in which access to a given market is totally barred. Even though we usually link the concept of media pluralism and diversity with the concept of market concentration as the main threat, what we are really speaking about are the different aspects of market shape or issues that can lead to problems with competition, or, framed in political terms, problems of excessive control over the media.

6“For the purpose of the study,” writes Doyle, “media pluralism should be understood as diversity of media supply, reflected, for example, in the existence of a plurality of independent and autonomous media and a diversity of media contents available to the public” (Doyle, 1997). In the study, completed in 1997, Doyle points to the complexity of the relationship of media concentration and media diversity and pluralism. Doyle lists the variables that influence the levels of pluralism in any media market:

  • the size or wealth of the market;
  • the number of separate and autonomous suppliers;
  • diversity/heterogeneity in output of media;
  • consolidation of editorial or other functions/resources (Doyle, 1997, p. 7).

7Both the diversity of suppliers (ownership) and diversity of output (content) will depend on the strength of the market and on the resources invested in the media. As the media operate both within the economies of scale and of scope, the relationship between diversity of ownership and diversity of content will depend on the possibilities for media companies to maximize cost-efficiencies that allow the greatest profits. Doyle further examines the economic ramifications of pluralism and diversity of content. She finds that pluralism is always at risk when the media engage in editorial sharing of products or sources, whether within the consolidated media company (with the same owner) or between competing companies. Doyle also quotes incidences of adverse influence of the owners on media content.

8This finding is supported by the 2003 OSCE study “The impact of Media Concentration on Professional Journalism,” which analyzes the results of a survey of newspaper journalists in eight countries in eastern and Western Europe (OSCE, 2003). The data shows that 25 percent of the respondents think that advertising influences the editorial line of their newspaper (p. 74). Additionally, 27.3 percent of the respondents think that economic revenue is very important for the editorial line of their paper, and 20.2 percent think that good relations with the business community are very important. At the same time when economic influence is freely admitted, any kind of political loyalty is discounted by the journalists. This fact alone should warrant policy action on media transparency and public accountability.

  • 1 European Court of Human rights, informationsvereing Lentia and others, judgment of November 24, 19 (...)

9The adverse influence of the owners on program content has, in our experience in Central-eastern Europe, often materialized when the state had monopoly ownership of the media. Application of article 10 of the European Convention on Human rights against media monopoly was used early on in a case of state monopoly. The European Court of Human rights ruled in 1993 against Austria’s state monopoly in television, stating that fear of a private television monopoly is not sufficient justification for retaining a state monopoly.1 Where media are mostly privately owned, the fear of too much power in a single company or media owner to influence the public agenda is the reason for our equating media pluralism with media owners’ diversity.

10Doyle quotes a U.S. study that finds that “in an advertiser-supported broadcasting economy with a limited number of channels, there will be a tendency towards duplication rather then diversity in programming schedules” (Doyle, 1997, p. 8). Humphreys (1996) similarly describes the cultural homogenization and standardization of media output as a result of concentration, because all of the media use the same strategies to attract the audiences. Einstein (2002) shows a diminished programming quality in entertainment programs on U.S. television after recent mergers. A European study at approximately the same time was commissioned by the European Parliament on cultural diversity in European media programs. Undertaken by Maria Teresa La Porte Alfaro and Teresa Sabada, it investigated the impact of globalization of the media industry by examining the ownership of the media, media content, and media distribution channels (European Parliament, directorate General for research, 2001). The study includes the EU members prior to the 2000 enlargement. It concludes that in the audiovisual sector the vertical concentration of television and related production and distribution companies increases the risk of the lack of pluralism of content. The study further finds that the cultural values present in the highest audience programs in the 1995–2000 period are domestic, i.e. not imported; this finding is seen as positive.

11The final finding in the 1997 study is that “although diversity of ownership will not guarantee diversity of output, the existence of a diversity of suppliers will still contribute positively to pluralism. Even if all suppliers choose to rely on or share many of the same sources of content, their rivalry will promote a culture of dissent which is healthy for democracy” (Doyle, 1997, p. 32). Ten years later, after a research study commissioned David Ward to look for the relationship between concentration and media diversity, the link is still not considered to be proven. This study, though structured differently than the Doyle study, had a similar aim: “the assessment of content diversity in newspapers and television in the context of increasing trends towards concentration of media markets” (Ward, 2006). The data were collected on genre diversity of television, and content analysis was performed of actors, subjects, and topics covered in newspapers and television news. The study was performed in four countries (Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Croatia), in order to find out if the different levels of market concentration would show related diversity and pluralism in media content. Ward finds that the “data on content diversity collected for this report does not indicate a strong link between concentration of markets and the diversity of content. Markets that are strongly concentrated can demonstrate similar levels of content diversity as markets that are less concentrated” (p. 4). This study did not take into account the size of the market (in terms of advertising revenues), or media policy supportive of diversity and pluralism, which could ac-count for the content diversity found in the study.

12The Ward study points to an important role of policy: Where no positive regulatory obligations are imposed on commercial television broadcasters, the number of programs of a high social value is slim, as is the investment in domestic production. This again proves the importance of policy in ensuring the social role of the media.

13The Ward study concludes: “The study could not identify a direct link between media concentration (structural and market) and content diversity and pluralism in quantitative terms. This is not to conclude that there is not a link between concentration of ownership and content diversity. However, such a direct relationship is not evident in either the diversity of content of newspapers or on television channels over the monitoring period in quantitative terms. Other factors such as resources, size of markets and regulatory obligations are also key factors in determining the range of programming” (Ward, 2006, p. 4). Present activity is aimed at devising a methodology for monitoring of media concentration and media pluralism at a pan-European level.

14Concerns for the freedom and pluralism of expression in the local media (especially radio), given increasing commercialization, were voiced in the European Union as early as 1984.2 The European Parliament stressed the need to protect and promote media pluralism and to control media concentration. The concern for media pluralism, viewed as a key characteristic of media in a democratic society, is also behind the 1992 European Commission Green Paper on Pluralism and concentration in the internal market (European Commission, 1992). Although this paper and its follow-up3 proposed further legislative action to protect media pluralism, and ideas were even entertained about an intercontinental world broadcasting conference where ownership concentration would be discussed and regulated, no further action on harmonization was taken at that time. The data from the study was, we must conclude, not taken as a proof of the detrimental influence of media concentration on media pluralism, especially not to warrant any action at the European level. The recent activity of the Commission on the commissioned research study “indicators for Media Pluralism in the Member states—Towards a risk-Based approach”4 supports my conclusion that the relationship is still understood in these quarters as “not proven.” The Commission seems to have taken a further step away from proving the relationship by focusing on the issue of pluralism instead of on the issue of media ownership concentration in relation to it. We will see quite soon what this strategy will produce.

13.3. What is media pluralism?

  • 5 According to the survey of Member states based on the Questionnaire on Methodology for the Monitor (...)

15One of the problems in investigating ramifications of concentration on media pluralism is a lack of a proper definition that can be operational for empirical research. Media pluralism as a concept is still not defined in most of the European countries (Council of Europe, MC-S-MD, 2007)5, nor at the European level. Iosifides (1997b) shows that in the 1992 Green Paper, media pluralism was also not defined and is used interchangeably with pluralism of the press, pluralism in the press, pluralism of information, and pluralism of expression of ideas (Iosifides 1997b, p. 86). In 2005 the final report of the Liverpool audiovisual Conference, the origin of the present effort of the Commission to de-fine indicators of media pluralism, states, “Perhaps the main subject is a matter of definition, or what do we mean by ‘media pluralism’ and whether in each culture/country it can have a different meaning […]. In the same way, about the role of the EU in this definition, and that we have had the proposal of how to define ‘pluralism’ more precisely in order to decide which instruments are relevant to handling issues in an adequate way. New Member states tended to have different notions of what pluralism means than the older members of the union. There is a danger of applying double standards when dealing with pluralism issues.” (Department for Culture, Media and sport, 2005)

16The Commission staff Working Paper “Media Pluralism in Member states of the European union” (European Commission, DG information society and Media, 2007a) describes, but does not define, media pluralism in the following way:

“Media pluralism is a concept that embraces a number of aspects, such as diversity of ownership, variety in the sources of information and in the range of contents available in the different Member states. For many analysts or observers, media pluralism has come to mean, almost exclusively, plurality of ownership. Concentration of ownership, it is feared, may result in a skewed public discourse where certain viewpoints are excluded or underrepresented. Further, because some viewpoints are represented while others are marginalized, abuse of political power can occur through the lobbying of powerful interest groups—whether these are political, commercial, or other” (European Commission, DG information society and Media, 2007a, p. 5).

17Today only a minority would define media pluralism only through diversity of ownership. Many research studies (also described here) have pointed out that diversity of media owners does not necessarily pro-duce diversity and pluralism of media output.

18At the international level, the IREX Media sustainability index (IREX, 2003) provides an example (among many similar endeavors, see UNESCO, 2007b) of the definition and research into media pluralism. In composing the index a panel is used in each country, asked to judge five main criteria or objectives of independent media sustainability. “Plurality of news sources: multiple news sources provide citizens with reliable and objective news,” is among them. This criterion is composed of seven variables:

  • “plurality of affordable public and private news sources (e.g. print, broadcast, internet) exists;
  • citizens access to domestic or international media is not restricted;
  • state or public media reflect the views of the entire political spectrum, are nonpartisan, and serve the public interest;
  • independent news agencies gather and distribute news for print and broadcast media;
  • independent broadcast media produce their own news programs;
  • transparency of media ownership allows consumers to judge objectivity of news; media ownership is not concentrated in a few conglomerates;
  • a broad spectrum of social interests are reflected and represented in the media, including minority-language information sources.” (IREX, 2003 p. xxiii)

19In this we find pluralism to include: a) plurality/diversity of media suppliers; b) freedom and affordability of access; c) content pluralism and diversity of ideas, as well as quality of content (i.e. public interest); d) diversity of news sources; e) independent and not concentrated editorial practices for news; f) diversity and transparency of media ownership; and g) cultural and social diversity in media programs and ideas represented in the media.

20At the level of media output or media content, we can speak of internal and external pluralism. Internal pluralism usually pertains to public service television and radio or a generalist type of television channel that includes different program genres within one media channel. This is opposed by external pluralism or pluralism at the level of the media system in which diversity and pluralism of opinion is not sought at the level of programs/channels, but is assumed by the independence and autonomy of diverse media types. In external pluralism, a media system could be diverse and plural even if all of the individual media had a single topic, or single ideology. Donsbach (1996) calls this virtual pluralism, as one would have to partake of many different media before a diverse and plural view of ideas and culture could be gained. a stream of research focused on the quality of programming content showed a higher level of (internal) diversity for public television channels, while the lowest results were scored by American commercial television networks (Ishikawa, 1996). The findings on the relationship are not conclusive, as repeated analysis in Sweden showed that “in the presence of increasing competition from commercial channels, Sweden’s public service television system increased its diversity, while her public service radio system decreased in diversity” (Hillve et al, 1997). This area warrants further research as well.

21Media pluralism in relation to media content is often called media diversity. Jan van Cuilenburg defines media diversity as “the extent to which media content differs according to one or more criteria” (2007, p. 27). He describes four levels at which media diversity can be studied: a) units of content (like newspaper articles or individual programs), where the diversity of opinions are studied; b) content bundles like television channels, where the study is program content supply within one media (i.e. genres or program types); c) at the level of one media type (i.e. program content in television, etc.); and d) at the level of the total social communication system (van Cuilenburg 2007, p. 28). Van Cuilenburg (2007) uses the concept (after Hellmann) of open media diversity and reflective media diversity, as two normative benchmarks to empirically measure a society’s media diversity. He places them in a mutually exclusive relationship: the more reflective diversity in a media system, the more media included in the system in a fiercer competition and the less openness diversity, i.e. equitable presentation of different social and political ideas in the media. Van Cuilenburg finds this hypothesis empirically valid after a Dutch television market study and collaboration from Germany. Both studies show that the “relationship between media competition and diversity and quality is far from linear and positive” (2007, p. 41).

  • 6 J. van Cuilenburg is also chairman of the Dutch Media authority.

22The study Concentration and Diversity of the Dutch Media 2002, published by the Dutch Media authority (2003), is one of the most comprehensive policy-generated studies attempting to link concentration of the media and the diversity of its output, based in principle on the above ideas. This study introduces two concepts for evaluating content diversity, i.e. reflective diversity and openness diversity. Reflective diversity is a measure of the “extent to which media content matches the preferences of media users” (Dutch Media authority, 2003, in annex). In other words, it is the degree of similarity of audience share/ viewing time for different program types (i.e. news and information, fiction films, drama, etc.) and the share of that program type in the overall programming of a certain channel or broadcasting company. The study proposes that the better the “fit” between the proportion of the program type in the broadcast (television) program and audience viewing times of such programs, the better the media serves the public’s needs. This would seem to support the thesis of a new communication policy paradigm proposed by van Cuilenburg6 and McQuail (2003). The paradigm holds that the satisfaction of citizen/consumer communication needs will replace as the criterion the former public service media policy paradigm, which was based on normative principles and sociopolitical considerations of aims and values for the media. Thus the satisfaction of citizens/consumers (as shown in the reflective diversity of the media) is replacing any socially determined media value (shown in openness diversity). The satisfaction is, in this instance, equated with user-behavior. At the same time, the behavior of the mass-media audience has become the positive norm of evaluating media behavior. This must be viewed as a Copernican shift in media policy theory.

13.4. Conclusion

23let us review different findings from (mainly) policy-triggered research into the impact that different levels of competition (or concentration as the other side of the coin, which is more often used in media policy talk but less in the market research itself) can have on media landscape (and sometimes will have, but we are not able yet to predict precisely when and how) on the pluralism and diversity of the media programs and content. The following negative effects are found:

  • diminishing of choice and diversity in the number of titles or outlets;
  • mainstreaming of the remaining titles in order to maximize audiences;
  • editorial concentration, a practice of “diversified” media conglomerates: media content is produced in one central place and distributed to local audiences—lowers diversity of opinion;
  • negative effects on programming quality (lowest common denominator and reduced investments);
  • standardization of cultural content in the media;
  • influence of owners on content;
  • influence of advertisers and other economic interests of the media on content.

24Although a great deal of evidence suggests that certain kinds of market shapes impede media diversity and pluralism, we still lack a systematic insight into all of the aspects of the relationship. In terms of positive social scientific research methods, we can look for two kinds of relationships. One would be causal, where we would look to prove that media concentration causes diminished diversity and pluralism of media output in terms of content. a causal relationship is, however, almost impossible to prove in relation to a social development with so many variables that we cannot account for. For instance, it has already been highlighted that the size of the media market and the size of the population are a factor in the number of media that can survive (i.e. structural diversity at the level of media outlets). We are not sure if political or cultural traditions (like the habits of reading more newspapers or watching more television) play a role, and if so, what kind of role. Thus we cannot expect to prove definitively that media concentration lowers pluralism (i.e. the fewer media and media owners in a market, the less diversity of media content on offer).

25The second relationship would be one of correlation, where we would expect to show that media concentration and low diversity and pluralism in media content occur at the same time and in the same market. We would take this co-occurrence to show a link; we could not, however, prove positively what the influencing factor in the development is. Is it the concentrated media market itself? Are the practices of editorial integration or loss of independence in production the main culprits (and are they the result of concentration)? Or is the reason for low diversity of content to be found in audience preferences (based on the assumption that today’s audiences are only interested in one thing: entertainment)? We could even turn the proposition around and assume that the reduced pluralism and diversity of content drives the integration of the media (although this would be very far-fetched and a thesis not yet put forward as defense for media concentration). In summary, it is almost impossible to prove the relationship with a one-off empirical research design, which can only provide us with a snapshot in time. It would be like taking a photograph of a high-jumper and expecting to understand from it how high he would go before landing. A much better understanding would be gained by a video clip, showing the full jump and including the running up to it, the crouch before it, the jump itself and the landing.

26The worldwide trend of media concentration in recent decades has been well-documented (Bagdikian 2000, AP-MD 2003, 2004). The best way to look for the proof is with panel data that would show us trends of developments in the market shape and the level and type of content diversity over time. in this way, we could invoke the post hoc ergo propter hoc not in terms of a logical fallacy to prove the causality, but to show that when market influence becomes more and more concentrated, the content of the media (as well as media ownership, which is the first diversity to go) becomes less and less diverse and plural. This research should also include the important role of media and cultural policy. Previous studies show that the relationship between competition/concentration and diversity is not linear. The outcome is influenced by at least two other variables: the strength of the market and the influence of media policy. An examination is necessary of those markets where the media are concentrated yet have diverse content. Those markets/societies hide an intervening variable, probably policy measures helping protect and promote pluralism and diversity.

27We should also start examining a much more troubling notion, that commercialism in the media has reached such proportions that the quality of the programming is becoming irreparably worse. This is not to say (at least not yet) that commercially based media are intrinsically bad for pluralism and diversity. on the contrary, in Western Europe diversity was provided on a grand scale by private (pirate) radio in the 1960s and 1970s, by private (commercial) television in the 1980s, and in the entire mediascapes in the 1990s in Central and eastern Europe (Peruško and Popović 2008). In most of the world, the governments are still the majority owners of the media: in ninety-seven countries the state owns 29 percent of the printed press, 60 percent of television, and 72 percent of radio stations (World Bank, 2003). However, there is real concern about the future public role of the media and the role of commercialism in it. “Commercialism refers to the pursuit of profit as a primary goal, while non-commercialism in the media is associated with pluralism, diversity, and all kinds of public interest obligations that are often at odds with the profit motives that are inherent in the market-oriented model” (de Bens 2007, p. 9). We should insist that continued quality in media programs, defined as pluralism, diversity, and public interest content, is promoted and assured by European and national media policies.


1 European Court of Human rights, informationsvereing Lentia and others, judgment of November 24, 1993. Series A No. 276, paras. 32–33 and 38–42. Quoted in DH-MM (94) 8.

2 Resolutions on Broadcast Communication in the European Community (The Threat to diversity of opinion Posed by the Commercialization of new Media), O.J. 14.05.1984 C 127/147.

3 Follow up to the Consultation Process relating to the Green Paper on “Pluralism and Media Concentration in the internal Market—an assessment of the need for Community action.” COM (94) 353 Final, Brussels, 5.10.1994.

4 Available at, retrieved March 3, 2008.

5 According to the survey of Member states based on the Questionnaire on Methodology for the Monitoring of Media Concentration, Pluralism and diversity, conducted by the Group of specialists on Media diversity of the Council of Europe in 2007.

6 J. van Cuilenburg is also chairman of the Dutch Media authority.


Zrinjka Peruško is associate Professor of media studies at the department of Journalism, founder and Chair of the Centre for Media and Communication research (CIM) of the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb. Her academic interests focus on the analysis of media policy and system changes, with particular focus on issues of media policy in transition, media concentration, diversity and pluralism especially in Croatia and Central and Eastern Europe. Her most recent texts include the Croatian chapter in Television Across Europe: Regulation, policy and independence (2005) and Media Concentration Trends in Central and Eastern Europe (in Finding the Right Place on the Map: Central and Eastern European Media Change in Global Perspective, 2008). Her book on media and democracy (Demokracija i mediji, Barbat) was published in Zagreb in 1999. Peruško was member in the advisory Panel on Media Diversity (AP-MD) of the Council of Europe (2001–2004), and is a member in the Group of Specialists on Media diversity of the Council of Europe (2005–2008) which she chaired in 2006 and 2007. She is member in the Croatian National Commission for UNESCO (2004–2008) and serves on the editorial boards of several journals: Medijska istraživanja (Media research 1995– present), Revija za sociologiju (Review of Sociology) (1997–2004), Culturelink (1990-present). E-mail:

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