How News Production Affects Consumer Behavior
In the late 19th century, U.S. news media began shifting from a partisan press to one that pursued standards of objectivity. In recent decades, however, news partisanship has re-emerged. In a new article published in NCA’s Critical Studies in Media Communication, Robert Marinov argues that the neoliberalization of the American news media incentivizes the delivery of partisan news as a unique, competitive product. Further, Marinov argues that as a consequence of the neoliberalization of news media, consumers are given the responsibility to actively work to balance their news sources. Thus, neoliberalism shapes both news production and news consumption.
A Brief History of U.S. Journalism in the 19th and 20th Centuries
In the 19th century, U.S. newspapers were primarily partisan and were published specifically to support political parties. There were numerous local papers, each with different partisan views, tailored to different audiences. Thus, partisanship was crucial for newspapers to develop an audience. With partisan news, publishers relied on subscribers and politicians for income and support.
From the late-19th through the early 20th century, news production changed, and professional standards of journalism developed. During this period, advertising became an important source of revenue. Many smaller newspapers folded, as larger papers consolidated to take advantage of increased advertising revenue through wider circulation, leading to an overall drop in the number of local papers.
While the business side of the industry was shifting toward advertising and consolidation, norms of professional journalism were also developing. The profession coalesced around the idea of “objectivity.” Through the mid-20th century, these professional standards guided the development of investigative journalism.
Marinov identifies two main trends that changed the trajectory of professional journalism. First, beginning in the 1970s, media companies began consolidating. With the growth of corporate media companies, news production shifted toward a profit maximization model. Under this model, newsroom staffs and support for expensive investigative journalism projects were cut. Second, the conservative movement in the U.S. pushed back against what they saw as the liberal bias of the professional journalism model. Rush Limbaugh’s talk show, which began in the 1990s, inspired other media outlets, such as Fox News, to offer a conservative perspective to balance out what conservatives saw as the liberal bias of traditional news media.
News Media in a Neoliberal Era
Neoliberalism is a philosophy that applies the free market perspective to a variety of societal institutions, including journalism. The neoliberalization of these institutions means that they must prioritize profit-making and privatization, even when these values interfere with societal values. In the case of journalism, Marinov argues that the focus on profit maximization interferes with the duty of journalism to operate in the public interest because funding for important news investigations is cut.
Marinov identifies a few developments that define news media in the neoliberal era. News outlets have shifted away from less-profitable investigative journalism toward cheaper models of journalism, such as celebrity news and political commentary. Studies have shown that cuts in staff have also resulted in less traditional reporting. Thus, while there may be a multitude of online outlets, many are republishing reporting from a small number of traditional media outlets, thus lessening the diversity of perspectives and stories covered. Many outlets are also publishing news based on press releases, sometimes without much editing.
In addition to these changes to reporting, the consolidation of news media into global conglomerates has led to an emphasis on the bottom line in journalism. According to Marinov, this has not only reinforced the trends described above, but also has led to a new era of hyper-partisan news outlets because news production has re-oriented around news as a “unique, competitive, marketized product.” Therefore, partisan news has grown to accommodate both the needs of advertisers to reach particular audiences and the needs of news outlets to solidify their own consumer bases (and thus maximize profits) in an era of media fragmentation.
Neoliberal Rationality and the Audience
Neoliberalism prioritizes markets. Thus, neoliberal rationality reinforces the idea that within neoliberal societies, the consumer is someone who chooses products based on their values and whose consumption is tied to their identity. In this way, neoliberal rationality prizes both individual decision-making and the individual responsibility for one’s decisions within the marketplace.
Marinov argues that the neoliberalization of news media thus affects both news production and news consumption. In the current era of highly partisan news, individual consumers choose the news that reflects their partisan identity. Furthermore, because of the emphasis on individual consumer choice, Marinov argues that within a neoliberal framework, partisan news production “transfer[s] the responsibility of producing a balanced or objective news perspective onto the individual audience member.” In other words, if audience members want balanced news in this highly partisan era, then they must seek it out on their own by balancing various news sources (i.e., by balancing various news products within a competitive marketplace). Alternatively, audience members may try to hold news media accountable for their reporting, such as by cancelling a subscription or by no longer consuming content from a particular outlet. In either case, the responsibility for redressing biased or partisan news products falls on the news audience.
Marinov contends that economic models of the media often support the neoliberal perspective and emphasize consumer choice over the social good of an informed public. According to Marinov, this emphasis means that media institutions largely escape criticism because news outlets are free to produce partisan news under a market logic while blaming their viewers and readers for failing to do the additional work of balancing competing perspectives. Furthermore, consumers who do the work of balancing news reinforce and normalize both the role of consumer choice within neoliberalism and the system that produces partisan news content. Overall, Marinov concludes that, through neoliberalism, “the social good of an objectively informed public [becomes] a responsibility – rather than a right – of consumers.”