Media Consolidation and Conglomeration: The LIS Consequences

Over recent decades, consolidation has been a consistent theme in mass media and other types of information providers, with the emergence of large information empires which continuously acquire new subsidiaries. This conglomeration is a challenge to LIS because the values of these companies are directly contrary to many of the core values of librarianship. First, Nichols and McChesney recount that when media companies stepped up their consolidation back in the 1970s, they began to behave no differently than any other corporation, focusing on investors and profit margins instead of balanced, quality reporting. Alternative and minority viewpoints as well as international coverage were soon considered too expensive to produce, and newspapers and broadcasts watered down their coverage.

Consolidated media companies also strove to be the first to break a sensational headline at the expense of journalistic principles, and consequently “blew the coverage of the Iraq invasion, spoon-feeding us lies masquerading as fact-checked verities” (Nichols and McChesney). Also, their corporate ownership lead the mass media to ignore major scandals and misrepresent important economic and financial issues. Schiller adds to this by placing these trends into a broader framework, one in which the entire domains of communication and information have come to be dominated by corporations; an overall “shift from state to private power,” which has potent consequences. Of particular interest to the LIS field is his point that information “that had been in large measure a social good has been transformed into a commodity for sale,” (46) a point which is exemplified by the profit-driven priorities of the mass media and the subsequent declining quality of journalism.

These trends along with the shifting priorities of conglomerated media is a stark contrast to the core values governing libraries, which are key in a democratic information society by providing the public with “all points of view on current and historical issues” for the “interest, information, and enlightenment” of the citizenry, as outlined in the Library Bill of Rights. Librarians go to great lengths to protect intellectual freedom and provide free and equal access to ideas across the political and social spectrum, and they actively assist patrons in the use of those resources so that they can make informed decisions.

When the media of a society share some of these ideals and provide objective coverage and a multiplicity of viewpoints, the public benefits and can form well-informed opinions much easier on their own. As we have seen, however, the current state of mega conglomeration in the United States is quite the opposite. Thus, libraries must take on a much larger information literacy role to combat these strong forces.

Libraries provide access to news in both print and online formats, but they must strive to be an active educator in lieu of a passive provider to ensure that their democratic mission is served in today’s environment. For examples, libraries can highlight alternative media such as independent news organizations, local broadcasting networks and international sources available online that will expose patrons to novel ideas and diverse viewpoints. This can be done in person directly with patrons, but to have a broader effect, libraries can create and market web-based and print handouts to serve as a guide to navigating the media landscape. As a point of comparison, academic libraries invest a lot of resources in educating students how to identify an online source as scholarly by investigating the author’s affiliation and potential biases. This model needs to be adopted by public libraries to ensure that the public is able to make the same types of judgments of corporate-backed news which comes at them on a daily basis, often masquerading as objective reporting.

Despite these possibilities, the battle is becoming increasingly difficult for libraries as the media conglomerates continue to grow in power. The Nation’s telling infographic demonstrates how six giant corporations own a staggering share of news media, ranging from TV shows to radio stations and even niche websites. Many of these subsidiaries would not instinctively seem to be part of a larger entity, and this invisibility of the conglomerates in these situations makes the public less likely to be able to identify their biases; therefore, libraries must protect their values by educating the public in the use of media in all domains.

It is also important to point out that conglomeration of media is not the only type with potent consequences to the field of LIS. In addition, private corporations such as EBSCO, ProQuest and Gale are consolidating and steadily acquiring smaller databases and other information collections. Whereas libraries used to have the power to hand select every resource in their collections, today they are increasingly relying on these third-party vendors to provide them with access to journal articles and ebooks. Similar to the case of media conglomeration, these vendors have the same profit-driven mindset, which causes them to only include resources thought to have the broadest possible appeal in their database packages (Dilevko 698-99). Naturally, these resources are the non-controversial ones and as a result, important alternative and minority points of view are often left out. And like the situation of the media corporations, these information vendor conglomerates do not hold themselves to any code of ethics or share the ALA’s commitment to represent all opinions. In some aspects, this is an even more threatening type of conglomeration for libraries, as it has a larger and more noticeable effect on the collections of resources that are made available to patrons. Abbott said of online article databases that “whoever controls them will control much about the structure of knowledge,” (436) and as libraries continue to rely on vendors more and more to provide them with serials and monographs, they are at the mercy of those companies’ priorities. The business model of a major database conglomerate will simply not have room to include a balance of viewpoints, because those uncommon opinions are not cost-efficient on a mass scale. Libraries need to work to balance out these forces by exerting their power of expert selection and principles of intellectual freedom.  They need to make it a priority to add alternative media to their collections whenever possible, for example by subscribing to databases such as the Alternative Press Index, and need to continue to find the most effective ways to educate their communities about the effects that major information conglomerates have on information.

References:

Dilevko, Juris. “An Alternative Vision of Librarianship: James Danky and the Socio-cultural Politics of Collection Development.” Library Trends, 56 (2008): 678-704.

Library Bill of Rights. American Library Association. Web. 11 May 2011. http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/index.cfm

Nichols, John, and Robert W. McChesney. “The Death and Life of Great American Newspapers.” The Nation. 6 April 2009. 12 May 2011. http://www.thenation.com/article/death-and-life-great-american-newspapers.