The term pluralism is regularly used in critiques of media and in arguments for public intervention. It is employed so loosely, however, that it allows varied interpretations to be attached and this makes it highly challenging to turn general support for the concept into specific policy. Much of the lack of clarity is the consequence of indefiniteness of the term and because it is used as a proxy for more involved concepts.
The term is derived from “plural”, an indistinct quantitative concept indicating the existence of more than a single thing and plurality itself merely indicates a state of being numerous. This alone allows the term plurality to be used in various ways when applied to media.
For some it means a plurality of media outlets. This is indicated by having multiple types of media and multiple units of each media and the existence of a range of print, broadcast, satellite, and Internet content providers can represent pluralism. For other observers pluralism means plurality in ownership, that is, a range of owners and different types of ownership. For others it is indicated by the existence of public service as well as private commercial firms so some provision is made by an organisation(s) without direct individual economic self-interest(s).
The amount of media, its ownership, and its operation are not in themselves the objects of concern about pluralism, however, and these usages are merely shorthand semantic devices that indicate a collection of political, economic, and cultural concepts and ideologies. Because that collection is not universally agreed, the term pluralism is disparately employed.
The term encompasses fundamental concepts in liberal democratic media ideology and neo-Marxist critiques of media. It incorporates ideas of the benefits of free flow of information, ideas and opinions and the value of a variety in artistic and cultural expression. It recognizes the amount of content that can be offered by any one provider is limited by temporal and spatial factors. It accepts that the abilities of individuals to obtain and attend to content are affected by monetary and temporal limitations. It recognizes that operation of media is accompanied by political and economic benefits such as access, privilege, influence, and power and that those can be used for personal advantage and interests.
Those who accept these concepts underlying the term pluralism differ widely about the proper means for its pursuit, however. They have divergent beliefs about the roles of the state and the market and differ widely about whether policy should promote beneficial outcomes through regulation or incentives and whether—and the extent to which—non-market provision of content is desirable.
The difficulty of achieving the ultimate objectives is further complicated by the fact that public policies promoting pluralism tend of focus on the overt evidences of plurality in media outlets, media ownership, and media operation. Although multiplicity of media outlets, ownership and operation increase the possibility of achieving the objectives of pluralism, they do not guarantee because they are not necessary and sufficient conditions for its existence. Thus ‘external pluralism’ is sometimes not enough. This has led many to advocate for ‘internal pluralism,’ meaning that within a single broadcasters or publisher as variety of content and perspectives are provided. The provision of internal pluralism is typically used to justify public service broadcasting and narrow internal pluralism is a typical critique of private media.
The contemporary world creates lower barriers to participation in communication by making production easier and shifting distribution away from technologies that limited the number of providers and content available—the fundamental rationale for concern about pluralism. In the digital media world, the fundamental challenge involving pluralism is not limitations on producing content, expressing divergent ideas and opinions, or access to distribution systems. The primary challenge is the ability to effectively reach audiences.
In this environment promoting pluralism must focuses on reducing control over what flows through new digital distribution systems so dominant owners of production and distribution systems are not able to marginalize alternative perspectives and make them difficult to locate. And the fundamental content and attention problem remains.
Although digital media provide many more opportunity to be heard, the issue today is not ‘share of voice’, but ‘share of ear’. We need to seek ways to promote knowledge about alternative content and to make it more readily accessible. Otherwise the concentration of where the audience goes—in terms of aggregators and sites—is every bit as damaging to pluralism as limitations on spectrum and concentration of ownership. This is especially true by the Internet service providers, content aggregators, search engines, and video on demand services that pursue their own interests through in-transparent practices and algorithms that skew the access to and distribution of information, even when it is ‘personalized’ by individuals.
Those who hold that pluralism is no longer an issue in the digital world argue that its underlying infrastructures are neutral. That technology may be neutral, but the systems necessary to make them function are under the control of companies with their own agendas and the abilities to limit or direct its use in ways that harm pluralism.