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What is Public Media and what is a Public Media Platform?

Public media is not media that is merely publicly available. Public media is media that serves the public.

Equally, a public media platform goes much further than making media available to the public. It is a media platform that serves the public.

‘Serves’ means provides for, cares for, and prioritises the public. Indeed public media is also known as public service media and the terms are used interchangeably across the English-speaking world.*

In short, public media platforms serve the public.

This distinction is well defined by the Public Media Alliance which describes itself as the international association of public service media organisations.

“Public service media counts as ANY media – whether it is TV and radio or digital media – that is owned or funded by the public and is therefore accountable to them. They usually have the core remit to “Inform, Educate and Entertain”, a set of principles that originated along with the BBC in 1922. This is the widely accepted understanding of public media in its purest form.”

Before the internet, public media was public broadcasting. In 2001, UNESCO reported on the importance of public broadcasting to democratic societies:

“Neither commercial nor State-controlled, public broadcasting’s only raison d’etre is public service. It is the public’s broadcasting organization; it speaks to everyone as a citizen. Public broadcasters encourage access to and participation in public life. They develop knowledge, broaden horizons and enable people to better understand themselves by better understanding the world and others.”


While the technology has brought changes to how public media is delivered, its importance to the public, to democracy and to education has not changed.

Why is public media important?


“PSM is essential for an informed and effective democracy and should be accessible and accountable to all citizens” Public Media Alliance.


There are many benefits to society from public media that commercial media does not provide:


  • Education – Public media is more informative and educational than commercial media which tends toward entertainment. Commercial news and current affairs are presented in entertaining ways to maintain audiences’ interest, often as brief, fast-paced content that is therefore shallower and less informative. For example compare RNZ with Newstalk ZB.
  • Democracy – Less heat and more light, public news media is less sensational and reactive than commercial news media. Commercial media relies on advertising so the more clicks and ratings they get, the more money they make. Hence the overuse of alarming headlines which appeal to human beings’ instinctive interest in bad news – for example the increased coverage of vehicle accidents and weather events.
  • Democracy – Commercial news stories want to hold viewers’ attention for longer so tend towards easy-to-understand sound bites without in-depth or complex explanation. This can skew public perceptions towards shallow concepts and simple solutions to the world’s complex problems.
  • Independence from commercial funding – New Zealand journalists will rightly deny being influenced by pressure from advertisers, but there are occasions where editorial policy has succumbed to commercial pressure, influencing subject choices and prominence on the platform.
  • Independence from government funding – Politicians’ influence on government-owned media is more subtle in Aotearoa New Zealand than elsewhere, but it still exists. According to insiders, the government’s funding freeze and vocal criticism of RNZ in the 2010s had a chilling effect on its reporting of government policies. Equally, there are no news stories investigating journalism funding agency, NZ On Air.
  • Trust – Public media tends to be more trusted by audiences, in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally. This is important in all aspects of a functioning but especially for disseminating important health information and advice in emergencies.
  • Diversity – Public media is more likely to include diversity in its prime-time and on the home page because it is not afraid to risk losing audiences. When public media embraces diversity, social cohesion is improved through greater public awareness of minorities beyond stereotypes. Another important benefit is that people from those minorities feel included in society.
  • Human dignity – Media that respects its audiences as citizens and not consumers tends to be more life affirming and beneficial. Commercial media often ‘dumbs down’ content so that everyone can follow the narrative, whereas public media is not afraid to challenge and stimulate its audiences. An example is that public broadcasters like the BBC and ABC will screen long-form interviews at prime-time whereas commercial broadcasters like TVNZ opt for ‘reality tv’ and entertainment.


The benefits from public media are significant and well-documented. A report by the Knight Foundation in the United States gathers a large body of research that shows public media benefits social cohesion and public education:

“Public broadcasters air more hard news and current affairs programming (international news, domestic politics, public policy-oriented news) than their commercial counterparts, and what they provide is less sensationalist, more balanced, and more focused on policy substance rather than horse race and palace intrigue coverage. “Essentially,” one study concluded, “freedom from interference by market forces and government seems to lead to a form of public broadcasting that is markedly ‘better’ than its commercial rivals”.

Research shows that people exposed to news on public television are better-informed than those exposed to news on private TV. They are likelier to vote, and have more realistic perceptions of their societies, especially on issues related to crime and immigration. They are less likely to express negative attitudes toward immigrants. Countries with strong public broadcasters have higher levels of social trust, and the people who live in them are less likely to hold extremist political views.”

What is not a public media platform?

In Aotearoa New Zealand, there is some misunderstanding over what actually is public media, and some organisations claim to be public media platforms when they are not.  For example, former TVNZ Chief Executive, Simon Power claimed TVNZ meets public media principles because it delivers “news and current affairs, reflecting society, making sure we’re getting those harder-to-reach audiences”. But he is confusing a highly-commercialised media platform that screens a few public media-style programmes with a public media platform.

There is some crossover with commercial media in the area of investigative journalism and entertainment (public media principles do include ‘entertain’) but that’s because investigative journalism and entertainment attracts large audiences, which commercial media can then serve to advertisers. Actual public media is about serving audiences across all demographics with a full range of genres, including content that educates, informs and yes, entertains.

For TVNZ to fulfil Simon Power’s claim it would need:

  • instead of fast-paced news (One News), entertainment-focussed nightly current affairs (Seven Sharp) and pugilistic political interviews on Sunday mornings (Q&A) it would screen in-depth news and current affairs in primetime featuring long-form interviews on a wide range of topics, as seen on BBC, ABC, CBC and RTÉ and other public media networks around the world.
  • instead of mostly featuring middle-class and affluent Pākehā characters in drama, comedy, reality and factual content it would regularly screen programmes in different languages, with actors, storylines and subjects that are from and about diverse New Zealand cultures. For example – regular comedy or drama about Asian family life or other ethnicities, elderly people, and people living in poverty.

Other commercial platforms sometimes claim to be public media as well, under the same mistaken belief as Simon Power. They hope to shoehorn their commercial news content into public media’s glass slipper but like Cinderella’s step-sisters, the truth is less pretty for New Zealand society. Large commercial media like Newstalk ZB, Stuff, NZ Herald, One News and NewsHub generally fail to deliver the benefits to society that public media would. For example, educational opportunities are limited, democracy is weakened by shallow political reporting, trust is weak, diversity is relegated to off-peak, and human dignity is irrelevant.

Even NZ On Air’s claim to “invest in public media for many different audiences” is somewhat misleading. While it funds diverse content for diverse audiences, very little of that diverse content appears in primetime or on a home page, where audiences are. NZ On Air also invests in commercial content, such as Patrick Gower documentaries, which screen at primetime but favour ‘entertain’ over other public media principles such ‘educate’ or ‘inform’.

This is especially the case in the context of the commercial media’s overall output. There are huge gaps in New Zealand’s public media landscape, that NZ On Air is structurally unable to fill. This weakens any claim to investing in public media.


* Other instances where public media and public service media refer to the same thing:


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