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Opinion: The Irish public needs to be involved in the debates about how media is funded and regulated

Dr Eileen Culloty says media plays a central role in democratic and civic life – and media literacy is a vital tool in helping the public understand this.

Dr Eileen Culloty

IT’S BEEN A long time coming, but policymakers are finally catching up with the dramatic changes that have taken place in the media environment.

The EU has proposed a suite of packages that aims to rein in the power of big tech companies while providing support for struggling media outlets. In Ireland, the Future of Media Commission is investigating how media can be sustainably funded, while the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny. This Bill will establish a new media regulator with a remit that includes online platforms.

These are important developments that will shape the media landscape for decades to come. They are underpinned by a belief that media play a central role in democratic and civic life and they are informed by concerns about the media’s ability to fulfil that role in the digital environment.

A funding crisis

A core problem is that not all media outlets have developed a way to make money online. Traditionally, news outlets relied on advertising to cover costs. That model has collapsed as digital advertisers no longer need media outlets to reach audiences.

Instead, Google and Facebook dominate the market, largely thanks to their ability to collect data from users who enjoy free access to content.

Analysis by the marketing company Core found that Google and Facebook collected 81% of all online advertising revenue in Ireland in 2019. That dominance squeezes out Irish media. The consequences are already evident as outlets have been forced to close or cut staff.

According to Local Ireland, 16 regional newspapers closed over the past decade and employment in the sector halved. Without local media, court sessions and council meetings will go unreported. In the US, “news deserts” have emerged where there is no journalism coverage.

Various remedies are proposed including increased public funding for media and levies on tech companies. Media literacy is needed to ensure the public not only understand these issues but also can contribute meaningfully to the debates.

Public understanding

Evidence suggests there are major knowledge gaps in the public’s understanding of media. In the 2018 Digital News Report, only 12% of Irish respondents were aware that online news is generally not profitable. The vast majority (72%) did not understand that algorithms determine what news appears on Facebook feeds.

In this year’s report, 37% are aware that most news outlets are less profitable than they were 10 years ago, but the majority remain misinformed. That knowledge gap may explain why half of the respondents say they are “not very” or “not at all” concerned about the financial state of commercial media.

Of course, a broad survey question about a concern does not capture the nuances of public attitudes. Nor does it convey the nature of the problem. In all likelihood, if people were given context about the decline of media and the implications for democracy and their communities, levels of reported concern would probably be much higher.

Media literacy has a role to play in bridging the gulf between policy debates and public understanding. Traditionally, media literacy was defined as the ability to analyse, evaluate, and produce media messages. More recently, the concept has expanded in recognition of the fact that all spheres of life are now entwined with digital technologies. Being media literate is now tied to citizenship and people’s capacity to engage in civic, social, and political life.

Media literacy

In Ireland, there are great examples of collaborative projects that promote this empowering view of media literacy. Facilitated by the BAI, Media Literacy Ireland is an informal association of stakeholders working on different aspects of media literacy. It is currently running the Be Media Smart campaign to counteract false information.

More than 80,000 secondary-school students have participated in a news literacy programme run by NewsBrands Ireland, while TU Dublin runs a news website, CLiC, for primary schools. On this site, multiple literacies are targeted as children engage with news and current affairs while developing skills in reading and writing, as well as civil participation in online comments.

For adults, libraries across the country run talks and workshops, while a range of NGOs provides targeted support to different groups, such as older people.

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No quick fix

Media literacy is often invoked as a solution to digital problems. This narrow view is misguided. Disinformation is a complex problem that extends far beyond its media and technological dimensions.

Similarly, the financial crisis in news media will not be resolved simply by encouraging the public to become more conscious consumers. These are major policy issues and individuals should not be expected to shoulder the burden of acquiring new skills to offset the problems created by lax oversight of digital technologies.

However, members of the public do need to be involved in the debates about how media are funded and regulated. Expanding opportunities for people to develop media literacy is a first step to ensuring the public have meaningful participation in these debates.

Dr Eileen Culloty is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University and a member of the Institute for Media, Democracy and Society. Her research examines disinformation, digital governance, and media. Her book, co-authored with Jane Suiter, Disinformation and Manipulation in Digital Media (2021) is published by Routledge. She is vice-chair of Media Literacy Ireland. This year’s global Digital News Report can be found here and the Irish report, sponsored by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), can be found here.

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Dr Eileen Culloty

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