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A new and better way to detect media censorship

A new and better way to detect media censorship
A visualisation of the agenda independence score, which shows how the three nominally independent outlets in Nicaragua decline in independence over time. The visualisation also shows how one outlet (Canal14) declines more steeply than the other two. Credit: Democratization (2024). DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2024.2331694

Worldwide news media are facing increasing pressure from autocrats to report favorably about their leaders and party politics, so political scientists have launched a new computational method that can detect such media censorship by states while it is happening. This method provides valuable insights for communicating regime-driven media capture to the public. It is now described in detail in an article published in the journal Democratization.

One of the first steps of would-be autocrats is to control the media, as seen in recent cases in Russia, Hungary, and Turkey. Most autocratic regimes today execute control not by monopolizing media production, but by using legal, economic, and physical measures to sway the editorial choices of both public and private media in their favor. All to portray themselves and their party politics favorably to the public. Prominent examples of such measures are loosely defined laws, like anti-terrorism and anti-fake-news laws, used to silence opposition voices.

So far, expert surveys were employed to detect instances of such media capture by states. While these surveys are valuable, the authors argue they are inadequate. Their new has the precision to uncover the influence of media capture on editorial decisions, assess immediate impacts from new censorship laws, and differentiate between various media outlets.

Comparing agenda and tone

Very simply explained, the computational method compares media agenda and tone of independent versus regime-owned outlets through time. "Agenda and tone are two crucial components that autocrats aim to influence to emphasize topics favorable for their legitimacy and force a positive tone when mentioning the regime, especially its leader," explain the authors.

Through this comparison the loss of editorial independence at the level of individual outlets are brought to the surface on a monthly or even weekly basis. "This takes into account that the process of media capture often does not progress uniformly across the media landscape. While some outlets remain independent from the regime, others, such as those owned by the state, the ruling party, or the leader's family or allies, are already fully captured."

Tested as a valid method

To test the validity of this method, the authors applied it to the case of Nicaragua, where the regime has intensively cracked down on the media sector in the last years. "The country made for an ideal candidate, because it has experienced a steep deterioration of its media freedom in the last decade and the regime's attacks on opposition media are well documented," state the authors.

Their method proved able to show how outlets responded differently to regime pressure. "We found clear differences in agenda and tone between the regime-owned outlets and the opposition outlets. And during and after the regime's media crackdown, independent outlets shifted from a more critical stance to approximating regime preferences in tone and agenda."

The defense of media from state interference

According to the authors, future research should evaluate the validity of their method across different media systems and stages of autocratization or democratization. "But the methodology could potentially revolutionize the future study of media capture," they conclude.

"It provides for both researchers and for communicating regime-driven media capture to the public. It has the potential to reveal differences in outlets' resilience to repressive laws and allows for the timely assessment of the impact of seemingly innocuous fake-news or libel laws."

More information: Hennes-Michel Barnehl et al, Media capture, captured: a new computational methodology to measure deteriorating media freedom, Democratization (2024). DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2024.2331694

Citation: A new and better way to detect media censorship (2024, May 16) retrieved 22 June 2024 from https://phys.org/news/2024-05-media-censorship.html
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