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The Importance of Public Media to Democracy

New Zealand is a proud democratic country. But our democracy cannot work without a functioning media system - it’s the window through which we see our country and the wider world. And when the window breaks, so too does democracy. To that end, here’s a few reasons why public media is essential to New Zealand.

Democracies require informed citizens

In a democracy, we elect officials to represent us and make decisions on our behalf. But for it to work, we require access to information to make informed decisions, and be aware of any abuses of power. What we need is a central nervous system for society – something to monitor threats, share information, and figure out what needs to be fixed.

This is the goal of public media, to deliver information to the people, and empower them to understand the news and current affairs. Whether the story is local, national or international, it doesn’t matter – public media is responsible for keeping you in the loop. It’s also accessible to all New Zealanders, and primed to keep the powerful in check.

Commercial media doesn’t serve democracy

In contrast, commercial media doesn’t serve democracy. Why? Because commercial media doesn’t serve the people. Rather, the people are the product, dished up to advertisers who are the actual customer. This is the financial reality of mainstream commercial media: paid for by ads, and it’s making a mess of the news.

Advertisers couldn’t care less about democracy, what they’re after is a big audience. This encourages the media to dial up the melodrama and sensationalise stories. Instead of a nuanced presentation of complex issues, audiences are given the quick fix of voyeuristic, personal and dirty politics. And when personalities are prioritised over policies, it’s democracy that suffers.

Other commercial media models are problematic for different reasons. Subscription based news only serves those who can afford it, while sponsored media pretends ads are the news. And online, it gets worse.   

Online media is driving us apart

Online commercial media further endangers democracy because it’s eroding people’s ability to relate to each other. This is because the biggest distributors of online news, Facebook and Google, have replaced news editors with the news feed. And to keep people online as long as possible (again to benefit advertisers), everyone gets an automated newsfeed. 

Automated news feeds are terrible editors. They cannot identify stories that are profoundly biased, or even fake, and those designed to spread fear, mistrust, or outrage. This hampers people’s ability to build consensus, or have empathy for different perspectives. In online echo-chambers, the only opinion you can hear is your own.

BPM recognises the essential role played by public media in serving the people, by providing robust, independent and comprehensive news and current affairs. To this end, the BPM supports measures to enhance independent, public interest journalism through broadcasting and other media.

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