A team of researchers from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (AUB) and the Pompeu Fabra University (PFU) has theorized on the relation between publicity and information in the press. Matthew Ellman and Fabrizio Germano have discovered that publicity may cause distortions in news if there is not enough competence, or if the announcers are large or coordinated in a market showing two different faces: selling news to the public, and space to announcers.
The research project of Matthew Ellman (AUB) and Fabrizio Germano (PFU) starts off with a meeting with Patrick Le Lay, president of a private French television channel: ¨TF1's job is to help a company, like Coca-Cola, to sell their products. Our programs make the viewers receptive, relaxing and entertaining them between two commercial blocks. What we are selling to Coca-Cola is human brain time¨.
The new study, published in the latest edition of The Economic Journal, explores in depth the relation, at times tumultuous, between information and advertising. As Ellman explains to SINC, ¨many scholars in journalism and communication have identified publicity dependence as a serious cause of distortion in news content¨.
For the researcher, the project has two conclusions: ¨Publicity generates serious distortions if the media is not competitive, or if the announcers are a large or coordinated group of companies. Notwithstanding, publicity can reduce distortions if the communication media market is sufficiently competitive and if the announcers are small and diversified¨.
The operation of this causal paradox is simple: in a reference point without publicity presence, affirms the study, newspapers would treat all news with precision. When the amount of advertisements grows, a newspaper subjected to the monopoly would end up informing less on topics sensitive to the announcer. In other words, newspapers internalize a part of the total surplus of announcers.
As Ellman and Germano's theses demonstrate, this is not applied science fiction: information on anthropogenic global warming has been twisted or ignored in American media between 1988 and 2002. According to complementary studies carried out by Boykoff and Orestes in 2004, publicity from the automobile industry is a very relevant factor in the quality of this information, just like tobacco companies.
Paradoxically, strong publicity weight can bring competing newspapers to establish maximum precision in all topics, including those against the interest of announcers. ¨Newspapers in direct competition do not guarantee this precision immediately, since they normally modify their strategies to segment the market, and not face it directly. In spite of this, with a sufficient quantity of powerful publicity, the worth of attracting an extra reader is high enough for each newspaper to exclude this market segmentation¨, points out Ellman to SINC.
The study also evaluates a historical precedent. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a golden period for the American press came about: publicity in the media began to grow, and newspapers began to construct their reputations based on objectivity. Publicity was considered positive, since it reduced media dependence on states or political parties. However, the ¨informative distortions¨ did not disappear. While newspapers constructed their reputation through precision, announcers earned theirs by taking advertisements away from media that were detrimental to them.
According to Ellman, this was not an isolated action: ¨The most important company as far as publicity investment is concerned, Procter and Gamble, imposed a policy against advertising in media whose work was against their interest¨; concretely, media that discussed topics such as arms control, abortion, or who looked down on the business world. For Ellman, ¨this revealed the second main result of our study, that large advertisers who can take away their advertisements evade the previous paradox¨. Reader's Digest was sanctioned at one time for an article that showed medical evidence against tobacco use. Along the same lines, NBC itself suffered from the emission of a documentary which criticized labour conditions of Coca-Cola workers in Florida.
The results of the new research project are consistent with the recent prohibition of tobacco publicity in the press. The study, says Ellman, ¨supports policies which go beyond regulating competition. For example, subsidizing non-commercial media, such as BBC and other non-profit media organizations, could produce competitive alternatives which do not fall under the partiality dictated by advertisers¨.
Said in a more simple fashion, ¨reducing competitiveness in the market is not a wise answer to the current financial crisis in Western communication media¨, conclude the researchers.
- Ellman et al. What do the Papers Sell? A Model of Advertising and Media Bias. The Economic Journal, 2009; 119 (537): 680 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0297.2009.02218.x
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