State-supported journalism refers to journalism that is directly supported by state governments. This includes both public funding for independent, self-governed journalistic outlets and ventures as well as direct management of state-owned and state-supervised media apparatuses.
State-supported journalism is often promoted by governments that feel responsible for safeguarding and fostering sustainable, critical, and high-quality journalism options that serve the public instead of commercial media owners, shareholders, and advertisers. In these cases, state-supported journalism is argued to be a necessary response to the market failure paradigm wherein self-regulated markets prove to be inefficient or incapable of producing news that serves the public interest. Therefore, state support is needed as a correction, in order to support journalism that can monitor and hold accountable the institutions of government, commerce, and civic life.
However, state-supported journalism can also encompass what are commonly called state-controlled media, wherein the government funds media organizations to more efficiently reach large audiences with the government’s messaging. Under that information regime, the media organization often works to advance the political interests of the state by serving as the state’s mouthpiece. Those interests may be advanced both domestically and internationally.
Many countries around the world, from Argentina to Afghanistan to Albania to Australia, have some kind of state-supported journalistic outlet. These outlets are typically rooted in radio and television broadcasting, though there are some instances of state-supported print media and digitally native media. This is due in large part to the natural scarcity of broadcasting frequencies: There are only so many airwaves that broadcasting devices can use, and those frequencies have historically been treated as public goods.
However, any form of government support for journalistic media raises questions about the independence of the media producers. Put another way, how can a government foot the bill for journalists without unduly influencing (if not outright intervening in) the editorial process?
One way to do this is to establish an independent governance model, as is the norm in many European countries. For example, the British Broadcasting Corporation, or the BBC, operates as a public service broadcaster that is funded directly by citizens through an annual license fee that is set and collected by the government. Those funds are then transferred to an independent company with a board of directors that oversees the general direction of the BBC and an executive committee charged with overseeing its day-to-day operations. By creating a managerial structure that is largely separate from the British government, the BBC is generally able to remain independent from it. Additionally, it operates under a royal charter that charges it to produce public-interest journalism that advances the interests of the citizens of the entirety of the United Kingdom. While it is not free from criticism (especially from public officials who feel scorned), its journalistic arm (BBC News) is not only well regarded internationally but is the largest broadcast newsgathering operation in the world.
Europe has been particularly successful in developing a public policy framework that grants state subsidies to journalists and journalistic outlets that serve the public interest, advance accountability and transparency, and contribute to critical thinking and well-informed debate among citizens. Such efforts may include direct cash payments to selected projects or general incentives (e.g., reduced rates for mailing news media) that play a vital role in creating favorable economic conditions for a public-interest culture in journalism.
Moreover, those frameworks often help support public-service broadcasters — organizations like the BBC in the United Kingdom, France24 in France, and NRK in Norway — that are designed to produce public-service journalism and are often among the biggest news producers in their countries. Researchers have found that countries with well-regarded public-service broadcasters tend to have better-informed citizens.
While the United States does offer some level of government support for journalism, its efforts pale in comparison to its European counterparts. For example, less than 1% of National Public Radio’s (NPR) funding comes from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) or from federal agencies and departments. Most of NPR’s funding comes from corporate sponsorships and dues paid by member stations across the country. Those member stations, in turn, receive just 12% of their funding from the CPB and other federal, state, and local government sources. In short, public media in the U.S. receives a relatively small amount of state support. Instead, most public and non-profit journalistic outlets in the U.S. rely on charitable contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations (e.g., crowdfunded journalism and philanthropic funding).
In the absence of structures to protect the independence of journalists, state-supported media can become state-controlled media. Under this environment, organizations will seek to appear journalistic but functionally serve as propagandist organs of a government. This does not need to involve fabrication on the part of the organization, or the production of disinformation. Instead, it may simply involve the systematic exclusion of stories and perspectives that are critical of the state, and the systematic over-inclusion of stories and perspectives that are favorable to the state. (However, such outlets may, and some often do, produce false information that reflects positively on the government.)
For example, the Xinhua News Agency serves as the official state-run press agency of the People’s Republic of China. It is by far the biggest and most influential media organization in China, and it is arguably the world’s largest news organization in terms of personnel. In addition to operating within China, it also has more than 170 news bureaus — or satellite offices — worldwide, making it one of the most international news organizations in the world.
Xinhua has been routinely criticized for its deep connection to the Communist Party of China, and its governance structure places it under the direct supervision of party officials. As such, Reporters Without Borders has called it “the world’s biggest propaganda machine.” Nevertheless, it has served as a crucial instrument for communicating its citizens’ needs to party officials, and for (favorably) conveying the party’s policies and initiatives to citizens.
Xinhua has also served as an instrument for increasing China’s foreign influence. It delivers its content through multiple mediums, including print, broadcast, and online, and in multiple languages, including Arabic, Chinese, French, English, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian. In recent years, Xinhua has acquired commercial real estate in New York’s Times Square, bolstered its English-language reporting staff, and started an English-language satellite news network. Such efforts are capable of producing strong journalism — especially about matters only loosely related to China — but they are generally driven by a desire to spread perspectives that are aligned with those of the Chinese state.
State-controlled journalism is not limited to China. It is present under many authoritarian regimes, including Eritrea, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. Additionally, even in semi-democratic societies, state-controlled media may exist and reflect the political positions of ruling parties. In some cases, the dominant perspectives conveyed by such outlets change drastically as political power transitions between parties, making state-controlled media a bellwether of power.
State-supported journalism refers to journalism that is directly supported by state governments.
Strong, independent public-service journalistic outlets can emerge in media systems that receive substantial state support. Many European countries have well-regarded public-service broadcasters that promote a well-informed citizenry.
State subsidies can also support state-controlled media outlets that are designed to promote the viewpoints of ruling parties and serve as instruments for advancing foreign influence.