Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Reassessing the Potential Contribution of Communications Research to Communications Policy: The Case of Media Ownership

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Reassessing the Potential Contribution of Communications Research to Communications Policy: The Case of Media Ownership

Article excerpt

For years, scholars both within and outside of the communications field have observed that communications research has failed to play a significant role in communications policymaking. Mueller (1995), for instance, described communications research's contribution to communications policy as "marginal" (p. 457), citing internal conflicts within the field and a narrowness of research focus as primary reasons for this disconnect. As a result, other disciplines (and sometimes disciplines without the most relevant expertise) have filled the policy research gaps left vacant by communications research (Mueller, 1995). In a 1994 Journal of Communication assessment of the state of the field, Noam offered similar conclusions, citing the lack of incentives for scholars to participate in the policymaking process, an institutional resistance to engaging in "applied" research, and ideological conflict within the field as primary causes. Some observers have noted that what little role communications research has played in policymaking has been confined to the media effects realm (Reeves & Baughman, 1983), with other relevant areas of inquiry aimed at more macro- or institutional levels of analysis not receiving the attention from communications researchers that they deserved and consequently not finding their way into the policymaking process (Mueller, 1995).

In contrast to the explanations offered in the aforementioned assessments, Napoli (1999) focused more on the demand side of the equation, arguing that policymakers' professional backgrounds in the fields of law and economics lead them to disregard the issues and questions where communications research is most relevant (and, consequently, to neglect the associated research) and to be skeptical of, or unfamiliar with, some of the methodologies (e.g., content analysis, audience research) employed in communications research. The end result has been that communications research, as well as the research of related disciplines such as political science and sociology, has faced a steeper hill to climb in terms of receiving consideration from policymakers (Napoli, 1999).

Perhaps because of these many pronouncements of communications research's lack of relevance in communications policymaking, relatively few communications scholars today enter the field with the objective of actively engaging in the communications policymaking process. (1) Moreover, those that do frequently adopt the methodological approaches or theoretical perspectives of law or economics, (2) two disciplines that have a much more successful track record in terms of playing a role in policymaking (Noam, 1994).

As this discussion indicates, much attention has been devoted to the challenges that communications research has faced in the policy arena. However, relatively little has been devoted to the opportunities available and how to capitalize on them. In addressing this gap, it is the contention of this article that, in the contemporary communications policy environment, the opportunities and potential for communications research to contribute to policymaking have improved significantly. This is due to the changing nature of the questions being asked by policymakers and the courts and a growing recognition within the policymaking community of the limitations of economic analysis in answering important communications policy questions. This article illustrates these points through an examination of the ongoing media ownership policy issue and the opportunities for communications research to contribute to the continued debate and discussion of this issue.

Media ownership has been a highly visible, and highly politicized, communications policy issue in recent years, beginning with the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) 2002 congressionally mandated review of its existing media ownership regulations and its controversial decision to relax many of these regulations (FCC, 2003). The ramifications of the commission's decision have been well documented (e. …

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