In a growing number of countries around the world, the greatest menace to editorial independence and professional standards is media capture. This form of media control is achieved through a series of systematic and premeditated steps taken by governments and powerful interest groups. Their aim is to take over four levers of power: the regulatory mechanisms governing the media; state-administered media operations; public funds that finance journalism; and the ownership of privately held news outlets. Besides media capture, journalistic independence is threatened by a variety of other factors:
- The commercial models used by the world’s big internet companies. These models have left much of the media weakened due to competition with a flood of other content, and with much less advertising than previously. This situation has also driven many media outlets to compromise their editorial processes in order to adapt to a content distribution logic driven by viral, often low-quality, content such as “click-bait”.
- The undue influence of public relations (PR) agencies and big advertisers. As financial pressures have grown, so has “churnalism”, meaning content generated through ‘churning’ out pre-packaged PR material. Paid advertising, disguised in the format of journalistic content, has also become a norm in many media outlets. These both erode editorial autonomy and professional standards.
- The gender and social inequalities in the news media. These longstanding issues correlate with less diverse coverage and risk exacerbating gender and other stereotypes in media content, which weakens the value of editorial independence in terms of serving society with credible and balanced reportage. Gender inequalities within media newsrooms may also translate into inadequate policies in terms of protection of journalists, and notably women journalists, who face disproportionate harassment on the basis of gender.
Some media outlets have been increasingly successful in experimenting with new financing models, with the subscription model proving to be particularly resilient to capture. In addition, journalism carried out by decentralized, cross-border investigative networks can mitigate captured environments. Examples of solidarity among journalists, albeit exceptions rather than a norm, are important especially in polarized media environments.