Saturday, January 10, 2009

Google Trends suggests that interest in media ownership on decline, especially compared to the economy

How important is the subject of media ownership? As with so many questions, the answer is, relative to what? And to whom?

Google not only answers our questions, such as “Who owns the media?”, but thanks to its scale of use, can also tell us what users are concerned about. Google keeps track of the more than 31 billion searches made through it facility each month. And thanks to a wonderful tool it has provided with Google Trends, anyone can search on the terms used in those searches.

As seen in Figure 1, the first finding from this line of inquiry is that “media ownership” has been steadily declining as a topic of interest. With 1.0 being the average for the number of searches for this term over the last four years, the trend is clearly down.

Figure 1, however, is for all searches, worldwide. Figure 2 is just for searches for “media ownership” from the United States. In this instance, Google does not register enough searches to register until 2006. It seems to show brief spikes, interspersed by little interest until the end of 2007 and the start of 2008, a period that coincided with a decision by Federal Communications Commission on media ownership rules which would have permitted a newspaper to own one television station or one radio station in the 20 largest markets, subject to strict criteria and limitations. It’s full report was completed in December 2007 and released in February 2008. Interest peaked again in May 2008, about the time that the Senate adopted a resolution of disapproval of the FCC’s decision.

Following a lull during the summer, the number of searches spiked in the last quarter of the year, though there is no single event or issue that seems to be associated with it, other than ongoing interest in whether the FCC would try to implement new rules before a new administration takes office.

In addition to the peaks and valleys on interest in media ownership as captured by number of searches, Google Trends can also display the number of news articles in its archives with the phrase “media ownership.” I have added this as Figure 3. This suggests that the salience of the issue was highest in 2003, coinciding with the previous FCC review and attempt to liberalize ownership rules. I suppose with media reformistas might use this as “proof” that media companies were more effective in trying to suppress information about the FCC’s plans in 2008. But it is far more likely that the media had much bigger stories—like the economy and the election—to be devoting resources.

Indeed, look at the volume of searches for “home foreclosure” in 2008 relative to “media ownership” in Figure 4. With 1.0 being the average number of searches for the year for "home foreclosure," "media ownership" is barely a blip. When push comes to shove, apparently it’s still the economy that trumps who owns the media in the hierarchy of public concerns.