The USA has one of the largest and most pervasive media industries in the world. It’s also extremely diverse, from local newspapers with a circulation of a few hundred to national news networks and internet aggregators. Americans have more choice of news outlets than the citizens of any other nation – but, at the same time, it’s often alleged that the news they are presented with is some of the most biased to be found in any advanced society.
Newspapers are the oldest media in the country; the first US newspapers were published in the 18th century. Unlike most other countries there are few national newspapers, with USA Today being the main exception. Instead papers are usually produced for a city or county although some, such as the New York Times, are available in most cities nationwide. Every large city has at least one paper; many have two or more. These are usually issued daily. Papers in smaller towns may be daily or weekly. There is also a wide range of free newspapers, supported by advertising, that appear weekly. New York’s Village Voice is one of the best known examples.
Newspapers have been in decline since the 1950s as other media have grown in popularity. Actual sales are about 5 per cent lower than in 1950 but thanks to population growth the percentage of Americans who regularly buy a paper has fallen dramatically. Advertising revenue has also declined; that’s led to most papers reducing their journalistic staff and relying more on wire services for national and overseas news. Most of the major newspapers are seen as having a liberal bias, although by international standards they are in the political center.
Radio broadcasting began in 1920 and quickly became extremely popular. It remains so today, with over 10,000 stations in operation on AM and FM bands. The vast majority of them are commercial and get their funding from advertising. Unlike in most countries there is no publicly owned national radio channel; the closest is NPR, which runs on a mixture of public and private funding and syndicates its material to around 900 public radio stations. NPR is generally regarded as unbiased; around 70 per cent of Americans think it’s politically neutral, and the remainder who think it’s slanted are split quite evenly between calling it conservative or liberal. That’s probably a sign that it has the balance about right.
Commercial radio offers a huge variety of programming, from single-genre music stations to talk radio and news. Other audio media are also gaining popularity and are usually classed as radio even if they’re not technically radio broadcasts; cable, internet and satellite “radio” channels, many of them from outside the USA, attract millions of listeners.
Television is still the predominant player in the US media market; 97 per cent of US households have at least one TV and the majority have several. The average American watches more than five hours of TV a day, although for much of this time the TV may be background noise and not the main focus of attention.
The US television industry is dominated by commercial networks. Most stations are affiliated to one of five main networks – NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and the relatively new The CW. The first three of those are known as the Big Three, and between them control the lion’s share of network broadcasting. Their percentage has fallen from a peak of 99 per cent in the early 1990s but is still very high. All the networks are largely funded by advertising revenue. There are also a large number of independent stations, broadcasting locally made content as well as shows syndicated from the networks. There is no national public TV station, but local public stations do exist. PBS produces high quality content that makes up the majority of programming on public stations. Polls consistently show that PBS is the most trusted American broadcaster.
US households can access TV through terrestrial broadcasts, satellite or – the most popular option – cable. Cable TV is the main source of news; CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the Big Three all have significant regular audiences for their news shows. Internet TV is also becoming more popular and, as in other advanced economies, the line between TV and the internet is starting to blur.
The internet has also spawned a new range of media outlets, including online news sites and aggregators. Some of these, like The Huffington Post, are now established news sources. The USA has the most diverse media industry in the world, but it’s also perceived as being among the most biased. Much of that perception is inaccurate; people on the political left tend to see objective news coverage as having a right-wing bias, and vice versa. On the other hand a lot of it is accurate, especially when it comes to TV news networks. Repeated studies have concluded that NBC, Fox and CNN have varying degrees of conservative bias, while ABC, CBS and MSNBC have a liberal bias – in the case of MSNBC a very strong one. There’s concern that biased news reporting could be influencing the way Americans vote, and some evidence that this is actually happening – towns where Fox News is available show a slight but consistent increase in Republican votes.
In fact there’s a bigger worry, although it gets a lot less publicity. American media outlets are certainly very diverse, but the ownership of those outlets is a lot less so. Roughly 90 per cent of the media is controlled by just six corporations. Until the late 1980s there were federal laws which restricted the ability of media organizations to merge or take each other over, but deregulation made it easier for large corporations to gain a dominant place. Critics say this has reduced the quality of local news reporting. It also gives corporations a high degree of control over what gets reported; Reporters Without Borders ranks the USA as 46th in its press freedom index, relatively low for a democracy – in fact below Latvia, El Salvador and France. Overall, though, the USA is very lucky in the range of media available and Reporters Without Borders are probably being too pessimistic. Newspapers give good local coverage while the news networks are very good at a national level. World news is a weakness but the internet means English-language networks like BBC World News are easily accessed, and these fill in that gap. It’s probably easier than ever for any US citizen to stay both entertained and informed without very much effort.