JFF #002: The rising tide of media capture

[Cross-posted from the Journalism Funders Forum website, where you can sign up for this newsletter.]

This month, we’re taking a closer look at the worldwide phenomenon of media capture. 


  • Various interests in society try to influence or instrumentalise the media and journalism to their own ends. In some cases, this can result in media capture – the triangle in which media become subordinate to private and political interests.
  • It occurs in a wide variety of countries and media environments, including in those wanting to appear democratic, and those with apparently healthy media competition.
  • It’s a problem not only for journalism and journalists – through soft, hard or self-censorship, for example – but also for funders and for civil society more broadly.

We hope you’ll enjoy the reading and we are keen to get your feedback. We’re collating our resources in a commentable Google sheet, as ever – please jump over and tell us anything you think we’ve missed – e.g. research, articles, links and resources.

Media capture – what is it and how to fight it?

You’re probably familiar with the concept of ‘state capture’ – a situation, say Transparency International, where “powerful individuals, institutions, companies or groups within or outside a country use corruption to shape a nation’s policies, legal environment and economy to benefit their own private interests.” Apply this approach to journalism, and you get the concept of ‘media capture’. This is, broadly speaking, where private, government or other interests take over the agenda of a media organisation or system, and turn it to their political, economic or social advantage. (There’s an emerging form related to the power of tech companies dubbed ‘infrastructural capture’.) Media capture is a worldwide phenomenon – it’s not restricted to developing countries, emerging economies, or fragile states. As Kate Musgrave notes, it often happens in countries that want to appear democratic. And it’s increasing in pace in Central and Eastern Europe. Why is this a problem, asks Reporters Sans Frontieres’ Media Ownership Monitor

  • How can people evaluate the reliability of information, if they don’t know who provides it?
  • How can journalists work properly, if they don’t know who controls the company they work for?
  • And how can media authorities address excessive media concentration, if they don’t know who is behind the media’s steering wheel?

There’s a wealth of information and analysis on this topic, so we’ve picked out three areas of relevance both to funders and journalists – mapping media capture, media viability as a potential defence against capture, and investigative journalism countering capture.

Mapping the complex new environment, including who owns what

The recent landmark publication in this area you really need to dip into is In the Service of Power: Media Capture and the Threat to Democracy, edited by Anya Schiffrin of Columbia University. This brings together essays by key scholars on different aspects and dynamics of media capture worldwide. This collection is pretty accessible and wide-ranging, both thematically and geographically. As well as RSF’s Media Ownership Monitor, other accessible starting points for anyone looking at this area include: 

  • the Europe-focused Media Pluralism Monitor, which concluded from its 2017 data that “no country analysed is free from risks to media pluralism”.
  • Central European University’s Centre for Data, Media and Society have designed the Media Influence Matrix, a tool for analysing the government and policy space, funding and technology as they impact on media.
  • FoME – the German Forum for Media Development – held its most recent edition on ‘The Silent Takeover: Media Capture in the 21st Century’.

Financial and other forms of viability as a defence against capture

Multiple factors enable media capture, including the idea that the weaker journalism businesses are, the more vulnerable they are to manipulation or takeover by corporate or political interests. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, poses two trenchant questions for the field in his draft chapter on media economics

  • How can we understand instrumentalisation and media capture in an environment where most news media are likely to become far less profitable and commercially valuable but will remain politically and socially influential and thus attractive assets for self-interested actors who want to pursue their own narrow interest?
  • Given the risk of market failure in the news, and […] of significant “policy drift” […], what are the implications of such drift, of proposed and possible policy reforms, and what other forms of funding, including non-profit or foundation funding, might be found to address market failures?

Foundation support or funding for – or even ownership of – media is seen by many as a bulwark against unrestrained market forces.  For example, Director of Dutch foundation Stichting Democratie & Media, Nienke Venema outlines their mission-driven investment approach, using their ‘golden share’ as a way of guaranteeing the independence and orientation of their investees, here.

(It’s important to note, however, that this is not a view universally shared, as the Literature Review section of this recent paper on foundation-funded international humanitarian journalism summarises.)

One specific track in thinking about how to support and strengthen journalism organisations’ ability to resist capture is to look at their overall ‘viability’ – a model that incorporates economics, politics, technology, content, and community – and the viability of the media system around them (start with DWA’s dossier on viability).

Investigative journalism: beyond capture?

Investigative journalism – both domestic and cross-border – is cited by experts as one of the most important forces to support against state and media capture.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), for example, is one of the largest producers of investigative content in the world. Its transnational investigative reporting and technology-based approaches to exposing organised crime and corruption worldwide mean that it is often looking at exactly those kinds of groups that routinely try to capture and compromise the independence of media.

Investigative journalists working domestically have also had an outsized impact – amaBhungane and Daily Maverick were instrumental in the State Capture inquiry in South Africa (partly with philanthropic support), for example, and Center for Investigative Journalism in Serbia (CINS) was recognised by the World Justice Project for their contribution to the rule of law in Serbia.

Partly because of this role, investigative journalists – already under-resourced and overstretched – face heightened risks, including physical, digital and reputational threats.

Anything we’ve missed? Don’t forget to add it to the commentable Google sheet!

What else we’re reading this month

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