Spain is the second largest country in the EU, with 504,645 km2, and the fifth most populated, with 46.4 million inhabitants in 2016.

There are many aspects making the media sector very important. From an economic perspective, the media sector has a significant impact on the country’s economy, the 12th largest in the world. In 2014, the culture sector accounted for 2.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product of the country (Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport - MECD, 2016). Of all cultural activities, the two with the greatest economic impact were book publishing and the press, followed by audiovisual and multimedia activities (including, among others, television, radio, film, video and recorded music). Publishing alone accounted for 34.1 percent of all cultural production; while audiovisual media and multimedia accounted for 27.5 percent.

From the strictly cultural point of view, the media also play a strategic role. Spain is home to the second most spoken language in the world, with 427 million native speakers in 20 countries, only exceeded by Mandarin Chinese. In this global scenario, many Spanish media design their products anticipating their potential extension beyond the borders of the country. However, the main Spanish media market remains the national one. In it, the media play a key role in structuring the cultural market not only of Spanish speakers but also of the many speakers of the main co-official languages: Catalan (spoken by more than 11 million people), Galician (about two million) and Basque (more than one million), primarily. All these languages, as well as some other minority and/or non-official languages (Aranese, Asturian, Aragonese...), have a significant supply of printed, audiovisual and digital media, which are essential in the linguistic and cultural structure of the different communities of speakers.

However, the main influence the media have is political. After the Civil War (1936-1939), Spain underwent four decades of dictatorship (1939-1975), during which freedom of information was curtailed. Since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and the transition to democracy that followed, public and private media have become a cornerstone of public life in the country. Thanks to the freedom of press and the right to information, recognised as fundamental rights by the 1978 Constitution, the media market underwent a radical change during the transition to democracy, a period that historiography considers concluded with the entry of Spain in the European Union in 1986. In just a few years, the media of the Franco regime were replaced by new newspapers, private radio stations and public audiovisual corporations. The emergence of private television channels took a little longer, until the concession of the first four private channels in 1989. This profound reform of the printed and audiovisual media market led to the creation of large private communication groups with diverse ideological alignments.

The media landscape painted in Spain in the early 1990s survives to a great extent today (Salaverría, 2007), and, with it, its wide ideological range. This ideological diversity shows, in fact, two clear axes, which could well be represented by a Cartesian plane. On the one hand, the horizontal axis where the most progressive to the most conservative media would be located from left to right. On the other hand, the vertical axis, ideally representing Spain’s more specific struggle between constitutionalist media (defenders of national unity) and nationalist media (in favour of greater autonomy or even the complete independence of their respective territories; this type of media being particularly common in regions such as Catalonia or the Basque Country, but also, to a lesser extent, in other autonomous regions with a strong identity of their own).

The ownership of the private media is distributed mainly among a group of four large nationwide multimedia corporations (Atresmedia, Mediaset España, Prisa, Vocento), in addition to other smaller groups, mainly regional in scope (Grupo Godó, Grupo Zeta, Corporación Voz de Galicia, Editorial Prensa Ibérica, Grupo Joly, Grupo Heraldo, among others). The four largest national multimedia corporations are listed on the stock exchange and, for the most part, have a dispersed shareholding, with an increasing presence of banks, large non-financial corporations and multinational investment funds. Most of the regional media companies have a more concentrated shareholding and, in some of them, the classic figure of the publisher still survives, ie the owner who belongs to a family saga and watches over the editorial continuity of his media. In recent years, with the rise of the Internet, hundreds of independent digital projects have also been created, in many cases actively promoted by the journalists who work in them.

As far as the public media are concerned, these are mainly limited to audiovisual corporations, of both national and regional scope. Some local governments also have small radio and television channels, as well as some printed and digital publications. The influence of public institutions on the media has a second aspect: subsidies to private media and the concession of institutional publicity. Both the management of the entirely public media and the politics of subsidies and management of advertising are sources of constant controversy. Spanish institutions, both national and regional, are frequently accused of interference in the editorial line of their media, as well as bias in the granting of public aid to private media, advertising investment and even control of their contents.

This landscape, in which large and small private communication companies coexist, together with public audiovisual corporations, fits into the pluralistic polarised media system typical of Mediterranean countries described by Hallin and Mancini (2004). Certain distinguishing notes of the Mediterranean model drawn by these two authors can be observed with particular intensity in Spain:

  • the low circulation of newspapers, which has been exacerbated since the end of the last century by the impact of the Internet and, since 2008, by the economic crisis;
  • a journalism with a pronounced tendency towards commentary, in which the creation of opinion matters more than information, which favours, for example, the multiplication of political chat shows on radio and television;
  • a weak professionalisation, with a limited degree of associationism among journalists, who often suffer from very poor working conditions;
  • a strong state intervention in the media which, in fact, is intensified by the administrative structure of the country, since, in addition to a national audiovisual entity (Radio Televisión Española, RTVE), 12 of the 17 autonomous regions have their own audiovisual corporation, controlled by their respective governments. 

Proof of these close relations between media and political parties is the increasingly frequent phenomenon of "revolving doors": politicians who hold managerial positions in the media and journalists who become politicians. In 2017, two regional presidents (those of Catalonia and Navarre) and dozens of members of the national and regional parliaments are journalists turned politicians.

These characteristics of the Spanish media system have led to a growing perception by citizens that the media, especially those linked to large public and private corporations, are guided mainly by political interests and business clientelisms, and not so much by public service. Certainly, Spain stands out as one of the countries where citizens show greatest distrust of the media. In the Eurobarometer on Media pluralism and democracy (European Commission, 2016), Spain ranked 27th among the 29 countries of the European Union in terms of citizens’ perception of the diversity of views and opinions in the media. According to the same Eurobarometer, in Spain, the media considered "not reliable" are, above all, television and social networks; within a general sense of lack of credibility, radio is considered the most credible medium, even ahead of newspapers. Indeed, the distrust seems to be directed towards television and digital media in particular. According to the Digital News Report 2016 (Reuters Institute, 2016; Center for Internet Studies and Digital Life, 2016), Spain was the fourth country -of 24- in which the audience most believed that their online media are subject to improper political and governmental influences, and the fifth in which economic and commercial influences were most identified.

However, other sociological studies give more credibility to the media. For example, according to the April 2015 Barometer of the Centre for Sociological Research (CIS), the media are the institution that inspires the third-highest degree of trust (average of 4.57 from 0 to 10), behind the Armed Forces and the Civil Guard and ahead of the Church, the Ombudsman or the various political and judicial institutions of Spain.