© Universität Wien

© Universität Wien/Gebhard Sengmüller

Between the Fourth Estate and the Fifth Power

Conservation and Innovation in PSM Journalism

RIPE@2022 conference
18 – 21 September 2022 in Vienna, Austria

Digital technologies have created enormous disruptions for media systems and companies, and ushered in consequential shifts in economic as well as political power. More media of more types are motivated by commercial imperatives even as the editorial function has become endangered. New media platforms are increasingly influential and used sources for ‘news’ and information and resist being defined as media companies.  The big tech big data corporations have substantial influence on public communication today. National PSM providers remain important in principle but are often at severe disadvantage in many respects, including economic funding, political support, commercial pressure and competition, channel proliferation, and fundamentally as a consequence of the enormity of changes in the scope and scale of competition.


Countries and populations around the world are challenged by trends summarized as fake news, mis- and disinformation campaigns, filter bubbles and the algorithmic production of personalized content – especially news.  The collapse of editorial responsibility has resulted in a systemic condition characterized by nontransparency and unaccountability. All of this gravely endangers the health and vitalbity of the public sphere for democratic societies, and undermines PSM in both institutional and operational aspects. As people increasingly cruise the internet universe of commercial social media, trust and performance for quality journalism is seriously at risk.


The historic paradigm has prioritized the creation and maintenance of independent media based on professional, accountable journalistic skills and practices as an essential for democratic practice.  For this reason, the press has been conceptualized as the Fourth Estate of power (alongside Executive, Legislative and Judicial) in democratic societies. This understanding of the institutional framework that has protected PSM’s role in the Fourth Estate is under attack from political and business interests in an increasing number of countries. PSM is under stress in traditional broadcasting and even more so in the online environment that is largely governed by commercial interests that manage a corporatized Internet with profound potential consequences given the powerful influences of social media. At the same time, societies are struggling to cope with massive social disruption manifest in polarization and  fragmentation, nationalistic protectionism, xenophobic politics, sophisticated new forms of clandestine propaganda and cyber-strategies that seek to undermine democracy and foment unrest.


A series of crucial questions invite serious consideration:  How can PSM keep pace with these dynamics and mitigate the damaging consequences of digital transformation?  How can PSM effectively compete with the dominance of digital media giants and serve as a counterbalance? How can PSM resist the alarming constellation of pressures opposing them and develop appropriate answers to maintain their role and function as independent, trusted sources of truthful, fair and balanced information dedicated to serving the whole  of society? How can PSM be distinctive in providing and defending Quality Journalism in the digital age,  avoid being caught up in the problem of filter bubbles, escape the risk of unwittingly engaging with fake news, safeguard independence and advance media pluralism and content diversity?