Mariana Rodríguez
Elizabeth J. Zechmeister
Publication Date
February 8, 2018

Latin American Public Opinion Project (Rodríguez); Vanderbilt University (Zechmeister)

"[T]he findings from our analyses point to the broader conclusion that focusing efforts on strengthening media ecosystems can help to address and, ideally, counter the region's growing dissatisfaction with democracy. This is because where citizens have more confidence in the media and feel they have access to pluralistic media, they are also more satisfied with democracy."

The findings shared in this Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) report come from analyses of the most recent AmericasBarometer public opinion survey, which has been carried out by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University since 2004 across the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region. The survey has long tracked the public's views about media and democracy, but it included for the first time in 2016 and 2017 questions about how citizens in the region view media pluralism and ownership: whether they believe media adequately represent different perspectives and interests in their societies, and whether they see media as controlled by only a few economic actors. What emerges is a more nuanced view of the dynamics undergirding declining faith in media, with implications for the LAC region's growing coalition of advocates seeking to democratise the media sphere as a strategy for improving governance.

In Latin America, the return to democratic forms of governance in the 1980s resulted in significant strides in press freedom. However, the democracy-enhancing role of independent media is hindered when just a few players control media environments. The issue of media concentration has been identified as one of the main challenges to media development in the region, including within discussions at a multistakeholder media consultation in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2015 facilitated by CIMA and DW Akademie. Since the mid-1990s, media movements in a number of countries, notably Argentina and Uruguay, have sought to address the issue of media concentration; research shows that these media reform efforts are most successful when advocates are able to develop broad and diverse coalitions calling for change.

To truly understand the prospects for reforms that could boost media development efforts, the authors of the report argue, answers are needed the following questions:

  • Do individuals perceive there to be significant restrictions on freedom of the press?
  • To what extent does the mass public perceive there to be pluralism in media content and ownership?
  • How do opinions about the media relate to satisfaction with democracy?

This report provides answers to these questions via the analysis of an original dataset collected from 20 countries in the Western Hemisphere by LAPOP's 2016/17 AmericasBarometer survey. It highlights some key findings (including by country) as they pertain to media development efforts in LAC, such as:

  • Concerns about press freedom are on the rise in LAC: In the average country in the region, nearly 50% of citizens believe there is "very little" press freedom in their country. On average, those who are economically poorer and less educated, those who are less connected to the internet and who feel less capable of engaging in politics, and younger people are more likely to perceive that there is very little freedom of the press. When it comes to assessments of press freedom, Freedom House (2017) ratings and the views of the mass public are in general alignment.
  • Trust in the media is on the decline: As recently as 2004, nearly two-thirds of individuals reported having high trust in the media; however, the 2016/17 survey indicated that only half of the region's citizens express a high level of trust in the media. Compared with prior years, this survey resulted in the largest proportion of respondents with low trust in the media, just under one-third. This decline in trust in the media coincides with Freedom House's 2017 report on a worldwide decline of freedom of the press in the last decade.
  • Lack of media pluralism is a significant concern: On average, only one in two people feel that the media accurately represent different viewpoints that exist in their country. Those who access the internet more often and who are more engaged with politics are more cynical about the state of diversity in viewpoints in the media. However, the more an individual pays attention to the news, whether via TV, the radio, newspapers, or the internet, the more likely they are to perceive that the media accurately represent differing points of view. Where the public sees more pluralism, it tends to be more trusting of the media.
  • Public concerns about media ownership concentration are high but not linked to perceived media pluralism: On average, nearly three out of five people in the region see the media as controlled by a few economic groups. However, while experts might hold that greater concentration of ownership inevitably erodes pluralism, the public frequently does not seem to perceive this. According to the report's authors, this discrepancy could be explained by the fact that many in the public lack the sort of extensive knowledge about the nature and scope of media ownership concentration that would enable their assessments to match expert scores.
  • Media pluralism and trust are key for democratic governance in LAC: There is a 15–percentage point gap in satisfaction with democracy between those who believe that media pluralism exists or trust in the media and those who do not think there is media pluralism in their country or have low trust in the media. "In countries where the media do not accurately represent a plurality of views, citizens are impeded in their efforts to access the media and the media are not able to fulfill their role as an institution that facilitates the distribution of information necessary to understand a country’s sociopolitical environment and hold elected officials accountable. In such contexts, the media risk losing their legitimacy as a resource that citizens can base their political preferences and actions on in efforts to hold their leaders accountable. If citizens are not able to rely on the media in this manner and do not believe that the media environment in their country is sufficiently open, their attitudes about the legitimacy of a democratic system are also likely to suffer."

In reflecting on these findings, the authors stress that public perceptions of media concentration do not always align with expert analysis of the situation in many countries. Moreover, the public at large does not connect media ownership concentration to diminished media plurality. These gaps between expert assessments and the public's beliefs might prove a challenge to long-term reform efforts. In that context, they suggest four areas where media reform advocates should target their efforts:

  1. Focus on initiatives that promote media content diversity and citizen access to a wider range of media outlets in order to generate greater trust in the media and quality democratic governance.
  2. Invest in media literacy projects that can educate the public on the nature and consequences of media ownership concentration. The public's ability to demand greater leader accountability and better governance with respect to the quality of the media environment in their country would be enhanced by understanding the detrimental consequences of restrictions to media independence and openness.
  3. Support initiatives and organisations that seek legal reforms in favour of more independent and transparent media market systems and regulations. The quality of democracy is contingent on a diversely informed public that can access the information necessary to monitor, react to, and influence decisions made by political leaders.
  4. Invest in public opinion and audience research to further understand the public's experience with the media environment. More data are needed to develop better advocacy and policy responses.

CIMA website, February 14 2018. Image credit: CIMA