How Can We Measure Media Power?

Lambert here: I guess my cunning plan to get people to stop watching TV isn’t working.

By Andrea Prat, Richard Paul Richman Professor of Business and Professor of Economics, Columbia University; and CEPR Research Fellow. Originally published at VoxEU.

The media industry is different

The media industry is undergoing a consolidation process. After the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Rupert Murdoch’s Century Fox reportedly offered to buy Time Warner. The offer was rejected, but the prospect of a merger between two media groups of such size has reignited a public debate on the dangers of excessive media concentration.1 Unlike milk production, news production is central to the democratic process. Citizens receive political information from mass media and they use it to decide how to vote. By choosing what to report and how to report it, a media company can affect the views of its users and hence their voting decisions. This is not just a theoretical possibility. DellaVigna and Kaplan (2007) found that the entry of Fox News increased the national vote share of Republicans by 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points. The potential for political influence is what most people think of when they talk about the power of the media.

Leveson Report (a comprehensive inquiry into the practices of the British Press following the News of the World scandal) concluded: “It is only through this plurality, specifically in relation to news and current affairs, that we can ensure that the public is able to be well informed on matters of local, national and international news and policy and able to play their full part in a democratic society”.2 Is CNN more or less influential than Yahoo News?

Measuring media power

In a recent CEPR Discussion Paper, I propose a new media power index that aggregates power across all media platforms (Prat 2014). Unlike existing measures, the basic units of analysis in the new index are not markets but voters. For any given voter, one can determine the set of news sources that he or she follows. For instance, a particular voter may read the New York Times and watch ABC news, and those are the news sources that can influence her political views. Once we aggregate across voters, we can determine the power of a media company as its ability to change people’s exposure to information and the way they vote. The media index measures the potential for a given media company to shift vote shares from one political party to another.

The new index does not measure actual media influence. Rather, it focuses on the maximum potential for media power. This avoids the need to speculate on the possible motives of media owners and the possible reactions of media users, which are exceedingly difficult to determine ex ante. To measure this maximum potential, we answer the question, “assuming that the only goal of a media owner were to favour one political party, and that media users took the information they receive at face value, how much could the media owner influence voting behaviour?” The answer to this question identifies an upper bound to the power of a media company. It provides a basis for prudential regulation by directing attention to the highest damage potential of any media ownership pattern.3 Define the attention share that a voter devotes to a particular news source as one divided by the number of sources that voter uses, and zero if he does not follow that source. Voters that focus on a narrower selection of sources will thus have large attention shares attached to each source. The overall attention share of each source is the average attention share by source over all voters. Within this framework the power of a media company is a simple function of its overall attention share.

Media power in the US

The new index is easy to compute provided individual media consumption data are available. This information is available in the US from a biennial Pew Institute survey, going back to the 90s. Each respondent is asked where they get their political news and the set of answers includes all major sources in all main platforms, including new media.

The media power index values for all major US news organisations in 2012 are shown in Figure 1. For media conglomerates the index includes all owned news sources on any platform. For instance, in 2012 News Corp owned both Fox and the Wall Street Journal. The index also covers multiple distribution channels for the same source. For instance, the New York Times entry includes both print readers and online readers.

Figure 1. Power index, 15 major US media companies, based on the 2012 Pew Institute Media Consumption Survey


• The first finding is that the four most powerful media companies are mainly television-based.

This is because a vast majority of Americans get their news exclusively from television and typically from a very limited number of broadcasters, giving them a high attention share. The most powerful press source is the New York Times in ninth position and the most powerful new media source is Yahoo News in sixth position. In spite of the fascination for new media, the number of users is limited and they typically access multiple other sources, hence the low value of their power index. Media regulators should continue to be particularly wary of any merger involving the leading television groups.

• The second finding is that the absolute value of the index is high.

The 22% index value for News Corp means that within this model and based on data available their owner could potentially turn a an electoral defeat with a 22% vote margin into an electoral victory. Namely, suppose that under neutral reporting party A would win with 61% of the votes and party B would lose with 39% of the votes. News Corp could shift 11% of the votes, thus guaranteeing that party B wins with 50% of the votes plus one. Of course, this is an upper bound to potential influence. It does not imply that News Corp will actually be able or willing to shift 11% of the votes. It just says that there is a set of conservative assumptions that lead to that figure.

Crucially for media regulation, these large power estimates are in marked contrast with the low market concentration of most media platforms in the US as gauged according to standard measures (see Noam 2009). It is true that media markets appear relatively fragmented, but this is not the right level of analysis for media plurality. Most American voters receive their news from a very small number of news sources. This creates the potential for the large political influence that this index captures.


1.For a recent survey see: A Prat and D Strömberg, The Political Economy of Mass Media, Advances in Economics and Econometrics: Theory and Applications, 2013.  

2. In the early 2000’s the Federal Communications Commission developed the Media Diversity Index, which first assigned equal weight to all outlets within a platform and then aggregated across platforms according to given weights.

3. The CEPR Discussion Paper considers a number of alternative conceptual underpinnings to the index, allowing for heterogeneous attention patterns or ideological media segmentation. As it turns out, different assumptions have minimal effects on the relative ranking of different media companies. All insights are delivered by the simplest form.


DellaVigna, S and E Kaplan (2007), “The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting”, Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol.133, issue 3.

Noam E M (2009), Media Ownership and Concentration in America, Oxford University press.

Ofcom (2012), “Ofcom’s report on measuring media plurality”, Executive summary, 19 June.

Prat A (2014), “Media Power”, CEPR Discussion Paper 10094, Aug.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. John

    We across the pond can see this phenomenon play itself during crises, especially racial and inequality topics, like in Ferguson. CNN comes to mind. CNN was not interested in covering the inequality aspect of what was going on there, just the racial issues that confronted the town. When you looked at other news sources you got a more informed picture that the problems were systemic and the community had a positive attitude in spite of the boxing in by white elites.

    You also got the sense whites were not interested in the plight of minorities, especially blacks. Apartheid seems to be OK. We heard the word “animal” used by white cops to describe the people protesting. Invading forces who know nothing must see all their subjects this way. Pretty brutal. A lot of this division can probably traced and reinforced back to media. They frame news to their primary audience — chiefly a white one.

      1. Anarcissie

        KAJ is certainly way out ahead of most of the boss media’s commentariat on this one, but he doesn’t really seem to understand the depth of the problems we have around class, which is not only that we are ruled by a predatory 1%, but that most of the 99% accept the class system that gives the 1% their power to be predators. Demonstrating about the more egregious crimes of the government (as at Kent State or in Ferguson) will not change anything fundamental.

        In regard to this, the diversity of ownership of boss media institutions is less important than the fact that all the owners and operators belong to the same class and have the same class interests.

  2. sd

    I can’t tell you how much I hate television news posing as entertainment as it is today. The more glossy they make it look, the less substance there is in the actual reporting.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      The only time I see TV at all — pause to roll myself into a ball in anticipation of being called an elitist — is when I travel, and the only extended time is at airports. When you get clean from TV, it’s amazing how it looks when you watch it again. It’s nuttier than North Korea. What are all these talking heads smiling about? They look quite predatory.

      1. David Lentini

        So true! My wife and I dropped cable a few years ago, and watched very little network television and broadcast news before then, and we’re both amazed at how physically and psychically ill we get when we see it again.

        1. diptherio

          My building has basic cable in the TV/game, and every so often I’ll plop myself down in front of it, just to see what the Normal mass media is up to. The other day it was “Dating Naked.” Oy. Has anyone else heard of this? It’s ridiculous. It seems like the basic idea right now is to take very 14-year-old-boy fantasy and turn it into a teevee show. Goddess help us all….

        2. wbgonne

          I used to be a TV news and politics junkie but haven’t watched any such in several years. I tried ditching cable altogether by using those super-antennas but that didn’t work here in Boston and I do love baseball and I also like football. Now I use Netflix for crime shows without commercials and watch sports without the audio. It is liberating in every respect. Commercial television and TV news are brain-rotting and soul-draining, and that is by design, I’ve come to believe. On the negative side, as bandwith capacity enlarges internet news is becoming more like commercial television all the time, increasingly unworthy of the advertisement aggravation and noisy irritation. Indepedent sites like this one are a beacon.

          1. Jagger

            Same here, baseball and football plus local news and weather is enough from cable. Plus a Netflix disc twice a week gives me all the TV time I need.

  3. mmckinl

    Excellent explanation of the real power of media through conglomerates and platforms. The next step is of course the ownership and control of those conglomerates. The top 4 are Zionist controlled. Seven out of the top 10 are Zionist controlled. And yes Murdoch is a Zionist.

    1. diptherio

      I feel like the word “Zionist” is…um…ill-considered, at least when being critical of the State of Israel. If you use it much, you end up sounding too much like the neo-nazi’s with their “ZOG” and Protocols of the Elders of Zion nonsense. I would suggest using the phrase “pro-Israel” instead…or maybe even better “Anti-Arab” or “Anti-Palestinian”. Don’t want to get lumped in with the wrong group of crazies, afterall…

      1. mmckinl

        “Zionist” is indeed the correct term for the ownership of the MSM. The owners and operators are far more than pro Israel they are rabidly pro Israel to the point where a dark veil of self censorship surrounds the MSM, Hollywood, Banking industries and all of our elected officials … and for good reason. Those that question Israel soon find themselves isolated and under attack, career ruined …

      2. mmckinl

        Merriam Webster Dictionary

        Full Definition of ZIONISM

        : an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel …

  4. David Lentini

    “Lambert here: I guess my cunning plan to get people to stop watching TV isn’t working.”

    Probably not, but you are contributing to my theory that economics makes people stupid.

    Where do I begin on this pièce de merde?

    First, the idea that all human intellectual activity can be reduced to physics metaphors, such as “power” and “potential”, and expressed in mathematical terms is complete nonsense that only shows just how fundamentally ignorant of science and mathematics the author is.

    Second, the reification of “information” into something that’s “produced” shows even more muddled thinking.

    Third, the assumption of a simple input-output relationship between what a human being sees, hears, or watches, and how they vote is absurd.

    Fourth, the idea that any particular news source provides a single, monolithic message has no basis in fact whatsoever. Even Fox News puts Dennis Kucinich on the air! The NY Times has kept David Brooks alongside Paul Krugman for years.

    Fifth, how can the author assume causality? Did Fox News really increase GOP voting, or did a change in the attitude of the country towards GOP positions enable Fox News to succeed?

    Frankly, I’ve come to wonder if this sort of academic garbage has done more to gut our collective public intellect than anything Rupert Murdoch could cook up. I’ll publish my index on this in the near future.

    1. downunderer

      “The NY Times has kept David Brooks alongside Paul Krugman for years. ”
      This example makes me distrust this analysis. David Brooks and Paul Krugman are no more different than Obama and (any) Bush. Americans’ perceived range of choices is increasingly throttled by the presentation of such viewpoints as the limits of the reasonable or acceptable.

  5. Steve H.

    “Grand strategy, according to Boyd, is a quest to isolate your enemy’s (a nation-state or a global terrorist network) thinking processes from connections to the external/reference environment. This process of isolation is essentially the imposition of insanity on a group. To wit: any organism that operates without reference to external stimuli (the real world), falls into a destructive cycle of false internal dialogues. These corrupt internal dialogues eventually cause dissolution and defeat.”

    “Incestuous amplification, in effect, hijacks the orientation of decider’s OODA loop by overriding observations to a point where one’s orientation induces the decider to see and act on what he wants to see rather than what is. (By the way, when a self-styled decider or change agent uses the words like vision and transformation in the same paragraph, it is a sure warning sign that such a hijacking is well under way.)

    It follows that the decisions and actions flowing from this kind of orientation must be disconnected from reality, except by accident or chance. But this initial disconnect is only the first-order effect; subsequent effects remove any significant possibility of a lucky break. That is because the disconnect between the actions and the environment that those actions purport to cope with pumps dysfunctional behavior back into the entire OODA loop, which then folds back on itself to magnify the mismatch.”

  6. Brooklin Bridge

    Two little bones I have to pick with this that may not address the usefulness of the model. I see the effect of media more in terms of ideological than political influence and I’m not sure the media potential to change things should be measured by choice in political party, rather than in acceptance of main stream narrative “du jour” . The phenomenon of the media is to create a powerful mindset that can withstand astonishing doses of reality without loosing focus on and belief in the preconceptions of this mindset.

    1. Carla

      ‘I’m not sure the media potential to change things should be measured by choice in political party, rather than in acceptance of main stream narrative “du jour” ‘

      This is an important distinction. Thank you.

  7. Banger

    I’m not sure that asking people where they get their information is a reliable way to establish the influence of various media companies but the findings are interesting nonetheless. Most information we take in tends to be absorbed through the unconscious and then re-formed in our conscious minds. That’s how we get some of the radically bizarre ideas that have come out of, say, the Tea Party that even Fox would not endorse.

    Whatever the influence of a particular organization the business as a whole presents a very narrow band of reality. Whether it is Fox or NPR the views or reality are radically at odds with reality. All the listed outlets except Fox tend to play with the same Narrative and Fox adheres to the basic outline but has, in my view, the most diverse views, i.e., they air sympathetically libertarian views as well as the usual pro-War, pro-predatory capitalism, and racist views of many of its commentators. All these outlets represent particular interests of various oligarch cliques and should be read knowing they are, mainly, propaganda/PR organizations who are in the middle of the political push and shove.

    1. impermanence

      “Most information we take in tends to be absorbed through the unconscious and then re-formed in our conscious minds.”

      How about if there is no such thing as mind?

  8. Brooklin Bridge

    For instance, we – the consumers of “media” – have a tendency to believe in the almost divine right of Amerika to wage perpetual war around the world where and as it sees fit regardless of political stripe of the actors du jour. This is the mind set the media has created. Rather than a potential motivation for candidate X or Y, the mind set makes us insist that our candidates, who ever they may be and which ever party of the day has “favor” with TPTB; that they conform to those views. This is of course a mightily felicitous “coincidence” to the various groups of elites that control the political parties as well as the economy and the legal system and the media, but while it does indirectly influence who we vote for, it’s primary purpose is to define how we see the world, patriotism and so on, and whether or not such candidates conform to that “engineered” view.

    As such, the various propaganda outlets, are acting more in concert with each other than as potential differentiators and friends of specific political parties. That latter is relegated to a small section of the media that specializes in that particular form of kabuki theater.

  9. Thorstein

    I note again that only 15% of the mindshare in the bar chart is controlled by print channels. To be sure, literate voters may be more likely to consult multiple information sources–that’s the freedom literacy confers, so the proportion of (functionallly, operatively) literate voters may be as high as 25%.

    I find the implications for democracy troubling. No matter whether you date the era of mass dissemination of (timely) information from Luther and Gutenberg or from the invention of wire services, it appears to be over. We’re back to the feudal model in which the second-born of the elite tell the peasants/voters myths and parables dressed up in Sunday/TV pomp, circumstance, and magic.

  10. indio007

    Kind of confused why AP or Reuters or McClatchy is not listed. Not US companies maybe? They have just as much influence if not more than corporations in the list.

    On a broader note the media has become straight propaganda. They dictate what and how people should think. They are not even pretending anymore.

    This was a particularly bad week for propaganda FAIL.
    1. The Ruskies INVADE!
    2. Ebola craziness i.e. people stealing bloody sheets and pillows. Is this even remotely believable?
    3. Ferguson … A could write a dissertation just on the fake and/or selective “news”
    4. ISIS and tens of thousands stuck on the mountain story … Reality = maybe a few hundred
    5. James Foley , how many “Arab Spring” war zones has this guy been captured in? There are 2 more I know of. Combine this with the bizarro world parents interview in which they know intimate details of how the terrorists serve their captives lunch and who stands where in line … I mean jeeze .
    6. ISIS Pamphleteers in UK …. problem is Pamphlets have an image of a Lion and a man on the cover. Too bad Islam forbids it.

    It’s like Operation Mockingbird was taken over by the interns.
    They aren’t even good at this stuff.
    First rule of a story is that it must be PLAUSIBLE!

    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Luved your list, indio007. Thank you. Would be terrific to see such a summation weekly on NC, perhaps bundled together with senior officials’ related “talking points”, an aspect of “catapulting the propaganda” that is often overlooked by casual viewers like myself.

  11. Andrew Foland

    The index measures maximum potential influence.

    It does not measure influence. Most of the critical comments here are answered by recognizing that. In fact it was designed that way precisely because otherwise such criticisms would be meaningful.

    The index says (roughly speaking) “If this entity had access to a hypnotic mindbeam that gave them control over news consumers, how many zombies would they have?”

    It turns out nobody has such a mindbeam.

    But the index is likely a very good proxy for influence, and a good guide to policy. Just as a reasonable solution to TBTF would have been an asset cap for banks (even if not a perfect solution in every way) capping potential maximum influence could form at least an objective measure to prevent influence accumulation.

    I think the biggest objection is the self-reporting of consumption, but that can be thought about in future steps.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      Fair enough and that is why I started my comment out with a conditional point about possibly not addressing the model. Your comment is quite helpful in explaining and for that thanks :). That said, the post is titled, “How can we measure media power” which suggests a broad view of media so I think the criticisms are not altogether beside the point.

      This model may or may not be a very useful way of measuring a highly selective – if not artificial – subset of media influence, but it does not measure “media power”.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Among other things, I’m suggesting that the selectivity (construct) of the model extends out to to what it is modelling making it highly selective as well and therefore missing a considerable part of what media and the power of media is about.

        Note that even in the post the context seems to be exclusively News Media. Note also how easy it is to forget, or slightly misplace, the “Potential” qualifier when thinking about measurement of media influence.

  12. TheCatSaid

    It is a mistake to consider media power from its news & information broadcasting and voter reach.

    Isn’t it possible that an ever greater influence on shaping people’s perceived reality occurs through non-news TV programs, entertainment programs, and movies? I bet more people spend way more time watching these kinds of shows than watching mainstream news. These kinds of shows might be more important in determining that very narrow range of topics, opinions, and preferences that make up most Western peoples’ framework of reality.

    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Enlightening observation. Although it is important to be aware of the related aspects of “generating buzz” in film marketing, your observation reminded me of the teaser to an upcoming film, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay”:

      The film’s name itself is clearly a play on the USG’s actual Operation Mockingbird:

      Clearly this issue runs long and deep in the nation’s history.

      1. TheCatSaid

        With TV programs and movies, I often ask myself, “Why was this made?” E.g., think of the series 24.
        On a seemingly more innocuous (but with even more insidiously powerful effects), think of the most popular shows that create (not just reflect!) society’s realities, dumb people down or create certain unspoken expectations or limited ways of understanding the world. . .

  13. impermanence

    Bullshit comes in a great variety of forms. The truth, on the other hand, is always quite apparent [immediately].

  14. downunderer

    I’m with you, Lambert. Over the past half-century, my wife and I have phased television out of our lives, dismissing it totally several years ago. I began with my first little TV in 1964, before remote controls and videotape made the editing process easier: I cut the lead to the speaker and routed it through an old light switch I could hold in my hand while viewing. Our kids grew up knowing that failure to use “the clicker” on commercials would result a “TV – off” event.

    But it became increasingly obvious that the insidious messages were not limited to the commercials. And the entire content gradually became ever more distasteful, with only rare (and wonderful) exceptions.

    The analysis you post here is worthwhile, but all such should be prefaced with the quote from Milton Friedman that Naomi Klein uses to open “The Shock Doctrine”:

    “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable”

    Now that the politically impossible has happened, and all levels of American government (from the top down) claim and exercise the powers granted by the Constitution without recognizing the limits that are still there in plain English, many are left wondering what happened. I think we both know what happened, but we didn’t learn it from the TV news. And the tragic paucity of constructive ideas for change is no accident. Our public discourse is limited to what was left “lying around”. With great emphasis on ‘lying’ and little input from the left.

  15. Tom W Harris

    “How Can We Measure Media Power?”

    I propose we use the “toilet bowl” as a unit of measure.

  16. Ulysses

    One of the most fascinating conversations I ever had was prompted by a “Shoot Your T.V.” bumper sticker on a car at a Dunkin Donuts in Pawtucket, RI. Just like detoxifying from unhealthy processed foods, dumping the boob tube has very salutary effects on your well-being.

    I do like to watch T.V. sports every now and then, so that is a good excuse to go to a bar and meet new people.

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