In July 2020, the BBC released some remarkable numbers: In the previous 12 months, 438 million people had tuned into BBC News, 351 million to the BBC World Service, and 137 million to BBC Global News. All three channels, as well as the BBC’s entertainment channel, had registered double-digit growth. The figures were especially surprising given that, unlike certain U.S. news outlets and online media platforms, “the Beeb” doesn’t rely on polarization as a business model.
The United States, still dealing with the aftermath of years of slanted information, should take note. What the country needs, it may be, is public-service news.
When the BBC—the United Kingdom’s own public-service news organization, which is legally obligated to neutrality—presented the summer 2020 figures, then BBC Director-General Tony Hall explained: “We are without question one of Britain’s strongest and best-known brands, synonymous with quality and accuracy worldwide.” Indeed, that is what its viewers are hungriest for.
One might assume that American viewers are just different. Perhaps they like drama, hyperbole, and confirmation more? Not so. According to a 2020 report by the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, that isn’t necessarily true. Rather, 60 percent of Americans want neutral news. What’s more, 56 percent of Americans find the BBC trustworthy, which makes the BBC the most trusted non-local news organization in America. Americans are also now BBC News’s second-largest international audience, at nearly 50 million. Outside the United Kingdom, only India has more BBC viewers and listeners than the United States.
Indeed, while polarizers get the headlines, Americans aren’t so different from many other countries when it comes to wanting facts-based news, the Oxford researchers found. When asked whether they preferred news that shared their point of view, challenged their point of view, or had no point of view, 80 percent of Germans said they prefer neutral news sources, as did 78 percent of Japanese, and 76 percent of Britons. In Denmark, 68 percent preferred neutral news; in Italy, 65 percent; in France, 58 percent; and in Spain, 55 percent.
But even though a majority of Americans want neutral news, they are not getting enough of it. In a recent op-ed, Senator Ben Sasse, a moderate Republican, bewailed this state of affairs, which he labelled America’s junk-food media diet. “The way Americans are consuming and producing news—or what passes for it these days—is driving us mad,” he wrote. “This is not a problem only on the right or only on obscure blogs. The underlying economics that drive Fox News and upstarts such as One America News to cultivate and serve ideologically distinct audiences also drive MSNBC, CNN, and the New York Times. More and more fiercely, media outlets rally their audience behind the latest cause du jour, whether it’s battling supposed election fraud or abolishing local police departments.”
But acquiring an ideologically distinct audience means being distrusted by the rest. While the BBC is trusted by 56 percent of Americans, and local news by 60 percent, CBC and ABC—the highest scoring national channels—get only 51 percent. NBC/MSNBC is trusted by 49 percent; CNN by 47 percent. Just over half of Americans trust the Wall Street Journal’s news reporting, half that of the New York Times, and just under half that of the Washington Post, but all are behind a paywall. Meanwhile, 49 percent trust NPR, which is a public-service broadcaster but with much less content (and funding) than something like the BBC.
In the UK itself, trust in the BBC has fallen during the past few years, but 70 percent of centrist Britons still trust it, as do 63 percent of partisan ones, and 47 percent of highly partisan ones, according to the Oxford study. Around Europe, most other public broadcasters register the same development: strong but slowly declining levels of trust. And still, the publics in those countries at least they have the option of getting largely factual news on a range of different platforms for low fees. Although many European countries have had bitterly fought elections in recent decades, not one of them has experienced a domestic insurrection challenging the legitimacy of the outcome.
The obvious fix for America’s junk-food media diet is more public-service news. The will of 60 percent of Americans should impress television executives, social-media executives, and members of Congress. While some people enjoy controversy and mud-slinging, and a small number may never be able to shed their predilection for slanted news, the numbers suggest that majority of Americans would turn to public-service news if it were as plentiful as the commercial kind. And so we come to a radical proposal. Considering that it’s in everyone’s interest to lessen America’s polarization-fuelled misery, social media companies, news organizations, and the government should join forces to fund one or more public-service news outlets—that is, non-profit, quality news organizations available to all, free of charge, and committed to neutrality.
Such an effort should include support for local media. Between 2005 and 2020, a staggering 25 percent of America’s 9,000 local newspapers went bust. America’s most trusted source of news is disappearing. When a person only gets national news, about issues not directly relating to him or her and about people he or she will never meet, distrust is bound to flourish. Access to a Plain News Fund, with congressional oversight and financed by social media companies and national news organizations, would give local newspapers a shot at survival and allow new ones to materialize.
And existing news outlets could bring change at the grassroots level. As a fellow at the Reuters Institute seven years ago, focusing on the polarization between the public and the political and media elite, I proposed remedies including personal interaction between news outlets and local citizens. It would work like this: The news organization invites local citizens to visit its office—it could be a pop-up office—to observe the process of news production. Watching journalists at work might convince those citizens that journalism is less nefarious than they might think, and that most journalists try to do a good and balanced job. The journalists would, of course, need to demonstrate that they really are balanced: perhaps a useful exercise. And they would learn from these exchanges with ordinary citizens. Germany’s Der Spiegel recently organized a similar citizen encounter, and an Austrian newspaper has introduced regular citizen visits.
Imagine if Americans were able to easily access real news and know that the information offered to them was both accurate and neutral. Sure, many might still return to the comforts of confirmation bias, but some wouldn’t. Otherwise, the BBC would not have so many fans in the United States, and local news—by tradition focused more on facts than ideology—wouldn’t be America’s most trusted news source. Public-service news joint ventures, amply funded by Facebook, Twitter, Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, and with congressional oversight. Funding for local media outlets drawn from taxes on social media and national organizations whose business model inflames polarization. What an opportunity for some organizations to demonstrate corporate citizenship by putting a small chunk of their profit to good use for the country. Yes, some media organizations already operate civic initiatives. Facebook runs Journalism Initiative focused on local news. But America’s news diet needs a radical cure, not just the occasional vegetable.
The public service push may be unlikely. Yet it is excruciatingly clear that America’s junk-food information diet is harming the country. And it is harming the industry; during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oxford researchers found that traffic to partisan U.S. television channels and websites has stagnated or declined. Considering that a pandemic isn’t beholden to political rhetoric, that turn of events should surprise nobody.