How can we make media accountable?

In journalism, accountability is one of the most frequently cited ethical standards (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001; Joseph, 2011; Singer, 2007). The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ, 1996) has developed some benchmarks of accountability for professional journalists that include “encourage[ing] the public to express its grievances against the news media, admit[ing] mistakes and correcting them promptly, expos[ing] unethical practices of journalists and the news media, and abid[ing] by the same high standards to which they hold others.” In addition to them, journalistic accountability can be justified by a range of activities, including publishing letters to the editor, being accessible to concerned audience members for discussion, archiving past news stories for future reference and informing the public about the correction of news (Singer, 2003; Friend & Singer, 2007; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001; Joseph, 2011).

The practice of press accountability began by the end of 19th century and the early 20th century, after the yellow journalism scandal in the United States (US), and the establishment of 7 canons of journalism by the American Society of Newspapers’ Editors, ASNE. The notion of “free press,” however, was modified into “free and responsible press” only after the Hutchins Commission report submission in 1947, which created a paradigm shift for journalism ethics from the libertarian concept of press freedom to communitarianism (Merrill, 1997). Later, the concept of social responsibility, as well as of public accountability was theorized by three scholars of the University of Illinois in a seminal work entitled “Four Theories of the Press” in 1956. The fourth theory, social responsibility, was a product of ethical concepts that encourage journalists to agree on a common ethics for social betterment and for remaining accountable to their audiences. Similarly, resolution 1003 (1993) on the ethics of journalism by the Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe mentions that “media have an ethical responsibility towards citizens and society” (article 1), news media must correct the information immediately and routinely and if errors identified (article 26), and audiences possess the right to reply and news media have to respond to them (article 27).

After years of research and discussions with many professionals and scholars, the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ) developed nine guiding principles of journalism in 1997, which are professional, as well as ethical standards at the same time. Out of them, the second ethical standard “journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens” integrates the media accountability parts, and the term “citizens” indicates media audiences of all types. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) state that most of the elite journalists “have been transformed into business people,” which means journalists are gradually being loyal to their masters rather than to the target audience” (p.50). The movement of citizen journalism, however, brought journalists back to the audience to which they are accountable in real sense (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001). The Canadian Association of Journalists (2011) has recently developed ethics guidelines of the principles for ethical journalism that include accountability of news media comprehensively. The guidelines express commitments on fairness and reliability of reporting, serve public interest as first priority, clearly distinct between news and opinions, avoid reporting in disguise, prohibit images altering and visuals deviation that can mislead context, correct error promptly and transparently, take permission whenever possible in reporting, and maintain digital archiving with full content.

2. Types of media accountability

McQuail (2005) identifies two separate forces of accountability: internal and external. The internal force involves “a chain of control within the media” (p. 209), specifically to media organizations and to its promoters.  Such control within a media organization, in McQuail’s point of view, can be too severe in creating self-censorship, or it can be “directed at serving the interests of the media organization rather than society (2005, p. 210). The external forces, however, are many, including audiences, clients, advertisers, disseminators, stakeholders, regulatory agencies, social watchdogs, opinion leaders, and others. Their interests can overlap and may exceed the ethical frames, especially from pressure groups, advertisers, and regulatory agencies.

The idea of media accountability is more clearly defined and classified in Bardoel and d’Haenens’s (2004) study. They found that modern mass media of any type or form is accountable to four different stakeholders: the State mechanism, market forces, the professional self, and the general public, or the audience (see, figure 1 below). Mass media’s accountability to the State mechanism may be the cause of strict law and regulation, the political nature of media control, and the benefits available from State agencies. Accountability to the market might be due to the media relationship with corporate agencies to generate revenues, sponsorship and financial support, which is the key objective, set by media promoters, not by media professionals. According to Kovach & Rosenstiel (2001), most media promoters want their news people to foster their interests and be accountable to them, and for that reason many journalists in the US were provided bonuses for their performances. However, the real spirit of accountability of socially responsible news media remains in the other two modes of mass media: professional accountability, and public accountability (Bardoel and d’Haenens, 2004).

The professional self-interest of maintaining journalistic autonomy and credibility is called professional accountability. In this mode, journalists and other professional media practitioners tend to follow media ethics to maintain professional standards of their works, and are available to answer any queries the public may have and requires, which fosters public trust in journalistic work. (Bardoel and d’Haenens, 2004). Similarly, the fourth mode of accountability, the public accountability is close and complementary to the professional accountability. In this mode, news media organizations develop direct relationships with their audiences (consumers, citizens, users, readers, viewers, visitors, etc.) with different activities, such as conducting regular market research, handling complaints, responding to feedback effectively. If journalists or media is accountable to the State or to the market, they are out of the professional track.

This study focuses on the third and fourth mode of accountability for two reasons:  firstly, ethical and professional standards of modern journalism have been developed based on the best practices of news media, and they are supposed to be accountable to their professional and ethical standards, such as accountability and transparency (Friend & Singer, 2007; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001; Merrill, 1997). Secondly, the State and/or the market accountability leads media to authoritarianism or commercialization, and deviates from the professional norms (Heikkilä et al., 2012, pp.6-7). The scope of this research study is specific to online news media, not others media in general. The news media are, therefore, expected to be responsible and accountable to the public or society, such as receiving feedback, correcting errors, providing platform for diverse ideas.

3. Challenges created by digital media

Scholars (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001; Friend and Singer, 2007; Singer, 2003; Ward, 2010, and others) argue that the traditional principles of journalism such as accuracy, balance, credibility, information verification, gatekeeping and accountability have been challenged in the digital platform in a number of ways.

Corporate culture. According to Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001), changing technologies and changing social norms have made it difficult to define journalism in a traditional sense. The recent trend is that different corporate houses outside journalism are contributing to producing journalism content, which is difficult to ignore, as well as difficult to handle from journalistic principles and standards (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001, p. 13). The new media technology and growing trend of speedy information, such as the “24/7” news culture, have weakened the long developed information verification practices. Kovach & Rosenstiel (2001) argue that this trend has empowered news sources rather than journalists, and as a consequence, the gatekeeping role of journalists has been waning (p. 46). In this situation, journalists treat facts as a “commodity” that is “easily acquired, repackaged and repurposed” and they spend more time to find out new information “to add to the existing news, usually interpretation, rather than trying to independently discover and verify news facts” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001, p. 75). Journalists seek particular information relevant to their stories from the Internet sources and immediately synthesize it into their existing news stories, or use information to twist news angles and disseminate it as updated information. This trend resulting from new information technology has made journalists passive information receivers than active gatherers.

Gatekeeping function. The journalism gatekeeping mechanism is for internal control purposes of professional wellbeing. In a traditional sense, editors and subeditors work within this framework to read, edit, re-write and verify the information to ensure the quality meets the media outlet’s standard before it gets published. However, in an online context, the press as gatekeeper does not strictly define the concept of journalism. The gatekeeping function, however, is gradually losing its significance, since the newsgathering and publishing systems are easily available to the public. The major role of online only journalists consists largely in “information-gathering  [… or] compiling stories originally written for someone else” (Singer, 2003, p.149). News staff are usually very limited, as such media do not require journalistic skills, but technical knowledge and organizational skills. As a consequence, where there are very limited or no professional gatekeepers, the quality of journalism in its traditional sense is unlikely. Jane Singer (2003) writes that “an emphasis on speed blends with an emphasis on novelty – old news is no news – [will result] in a de-emphasis on fact-checking and a decline in trustworthiness. In this view, [the] ability to enhance a professional public service role through new media is undermined by practitioners’ inability or unwillingness to carry out this role”. (p.153)

Correction and verification. Many scholars agree that information verification is a challenging job in an online context (Friend & Singer, 2007; Joseph, 2011; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001; Singer, 2003; Ward, 2010b). Information verification is very fast and there is an intense competition to break it immediately rather than to get it right through careful scrutiny. And, there is a growing tendency of post-publication correction. In any media format, journalists need to concentrate on “synthesis and verification” since they are the backbone of the new gatekeeper role of the journalist as sense-maker (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001, pp. 47-48). Joseph’s (2011) study is more focused on “changing correction practices” in the digital newsroom and in the online journalism context. He concludes that “journalistic practices has been affected in the digital age” (Joseph, 2011, p.705). 

Autonomy and independence. Most online media are complementary outlets to their parental media forms, such as newspapers, television, radio, magazine or something similar, and, in many cases, the online version is merely a replica of traditional media, just to make it accessible to a global audience. Singer (2003) argues that many online journalists blur the boundary between news and advertisements to elude commercial pressures by writing advertorials or adding a pop-up advertising window when a reader is looking for other information. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) express their worries about the watchdog function of journalism, which has been seriously threatened by a new kind of corporate conglomeration (p.112). Their research findings indicate that the digital platform is widely used to distort, mislead, and overwhelm the function of a free press (2001, p.135), and new technology has widely contributed to superficial reporting merely relied on chat box gossips (141).

Professional knowledge. On the one hand, the majority of online employees (or, journalists?) come from backgrounds other than journalism (Singer et al., 1999); on the other hand, an academic curriculum specific to online journalism is quite rare in higher education. Therefore, few students, potential professionals are familiar with online tools before they enter into the profession. According to Singer (2003), they are well-trained in re-writing, editing and updating Web sites, as well as in information search strategies and the creation of  multimedia products. Instead of journalistic knowledge and skills, online employees have “technical knowledge and organizational skills” (pp.148-149).

4. Has media accountability increased in digital platform?

Friend & Singer (2007) argue that as a newly developed genre, online journalism lacks ethical guidelines that are adequate for addressing the challenges created by traditional journalism. In the meantime, the traditional ethical practices that apply to online journalism is debatable, since some journalists argue that the Web is a fundamentally different medium (Deuze & Yeshua, 2001). Others, however, argue that journalism transcends technological barriers, and is ubiquitous regardless of its medium (Singer, 2003. p.151). According to Joseph (2011), journalism has been changing for decades and centuries from the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century, television in the mid-twentieth century, and the Internet in the late 20th century. However, journalism’s ethical standards “remain largely unchanged in the face of shifting work practices” (p. 705).

In a question, “Do ethics change in the context of online journalism?” many scholars or professional institutions have said “No.” The ethical guidelines of the CAJ (2011) clearly articulate a digital media policy that indicates “ethical practice does not change with the medium.” Reuters (2010) explicitly directed that “Internet reporting is nothing more than applying the principles of sound journalism to the sometimes unusual situations thrown up in the virtual world. The same standards of sourcing, identification and verification apply.” For Hohman (2011) and Whitehouse (2010), traditional ethics rules prevail online journalism. Kovach and Rosentiel (2001) have also expressed similar thoughts in stating that “journalism’s function is not fundamentally changed by the digital age. The techniques may be different, but the underlying principles are the same” (p. 26). Furthermore, they are suggesting that the responsibility of the press in the digital age has not lessened, but rather increased. Highlighting the importance of responsibility and accountability, they write, that:

“[s]ince there are no laws of journalism, no regulations, no licensing, and no formal self-policing, and since journalism by its nature can be exploitative, a heavy burden rests on the ethics and judgment of the individual journalist and the individual organization where he or she works. This would be a difficult challenge for any profession” (Kovach and Rosentiel, 2001, p. 180).

The heavy burden of ethics described above is nothing other than journalistic accountability. Black, Steele and Barney (1999) and Singer (2003) also share similar opinions stating that albeit journalistic codes are voluntary by nature, journalists keep themselves within the frame of ethical guidelines in order to fulfill their “public service responsibilities” (Singer, 2003, p. 145).

New digital technologies enabled by the Internet may significantly enhance the range of attempts to foster public accountability through online interaction with users. Bardoel and d’Haenens (2004) find that Internet-based media platforms (online Web sites, weblogs, social media networks, etc.) are increasingly more favorable to public accountability than traditional media formats. However, many scholars (Friend & Singer, 2007; Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001; Ward, 2010a, Heikkilä et al., 2012) are of the opinion that the digital platform is both a challenge and an opportunity for media accountability. Ward (2010b) argues that news professionals and amateurs, as citizen journalists are adapting traditional standards and practices to online journalism, weblogs and social media.

Online journalism, two-way interactivity, has changed journalists from having a lecturer role to a forum leader’s responsibility (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001). Scholars (Singer, 2005; Lasorsa, Lewis and Hilton, 2012; Porlezza, 2012) in their separate studies have reached the conclusion that online journalism has increased accountability and transparency more easily than their traditional counterparts.

In her seminal research study, Jane Singer (2005) examined the blog platform as adopted by political journalists of traditional mainstream media, and found that journalists who blog usually challenge the “professional norms as […] non-partisan gatekeeper[s] of information important to the public” but they are found more “transparent and accountable” in blogs, a highly interactive and participatory format, than other forms of traditional media including radio, television and newspapers (p.147).  According to her, though the blog confronts the traditional roles of journalists, such as “gatekeeping,” and “non-partisanship,” the format, at the same time, has encouraged journalist bloggers to uphold accountability and transparency by using hyperlinks to sources and related materials.

An empirical study on micro-blogging, built upon Singer’s (2005) normalizing hypothesis, by Lasorsa, Lewis and Holton (2012) examines how mainstream journalists who micro-blog (emerged in the form of Twitter) negotiate their professional norms and practices in a new media format. As in Singer’s study, their study found that journalists are being more transparent and accountable in new media forms by responding to reader queries, participating in issue-related discussions, providing further information, and linking internal and external websites. They write that “ although the process of referencing original source material has not always been easily facilitated in traditional media formats; however, the hyperlinks that are endemic to blogging and micro-blogging present an opportunity for journalists to be more transparent, and thus more accountable (Lasorsa, Lewis and Holton, 2012, p.24).

Similarly, their study also found that big media journalists, which they termed “elite-journalists,” who participate less in discussion, rarely reply to audience questions, and usually do not provide external links. Their official websites were less accountable and transparent than their counterparts in smaller media.

Despite these positive developments on accountability in online media platform, speedy updates, no deadlines, no space/time limits, and intervention of citizen journalists in news content have added further challenges. Many online media organizations archive selective content only showing the cause of limited resources and some of them do not keep online archiving at all. This trend has encouraged the online media to compromise the issues of accountability and transparency (Singer, 2003). Similarly, limited staff in newsrooms and their responsibility to perform multiple roles, from reporter to editor and publisher to promoter, have also weakened journalist accountability, since publishing is not a final act in online journalism, as it is in print. Publishing is “in progress” of public scrutiny (Joseph, 2011, p.715).

5. Role of audience in media accountability

In addition to legal mechanisms and various interest groups, the active and conscious audiences can have an influential role in making media accountable. This notion applies to a greater extent in the online context, since every audience can be a potential citizen journalist. If we revisit the definition of accountability by McQuail (2005), “media answer directly or indirectly to their society for the quality and /or consequences of publication” we get a clear picture of the audience’s role in making media accountable (p. 207). A continuous interactive relationship between media and society, according to McQuail (2005), can help build robustly accountable media. When online journalism content goes into the evolving process once it gets published; active readers send feedback, point out errors, and stories are being updated at different times (Joseph, 2011).

As illustrated in figure 1 above, the third mode, or professional accountability demonstrates that journalists can be accountable if they are committed to following journalistic ethics and are intuitively inspired to develop public trust by their works (Bardoel and d’Haenens, 2004), since their first loyalty is to citizens, as proposed by Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001). Journalists’ knowledge of media standards and ethics can help them be inspired to remain accountable intuitively. In the fourth mode of accountability, as stated above, media organizations, journalists and audiences have a very close and direct relationship. Here, journalists are pro-audience because they are available for public discussion, clarification, feedback, and, in case of error, to express apologies. Similarly, audiences possess knowledge on media literacy, responsibility and remain active as latent citizen journalists to share the outcomes of accountable media. McQuail (2005) rightly points out that “where media are seen to be failing they may be called to account by public opinion or other guardians of the public interest, including politicians” (p. 213).

6. Conclusion

Many research findings indicate that online journalism has contributed to increased accountability. Since most of the studies were focused on Western countries where the education and awareness level of journalists and audiences is relatively high, that does not say anything about the ratio of accountability in developing countries. The study of Heikkilä et al. (2012) suggests that online media accountability practices vary from country to country “depending on the perceptions of journalists and newsrooms” (p. 3). Media literacy programs for civil society and the promotion of public debate about the role of journalism can help build more accountable media, particularly in a developing country context. (White, 2009).

Journalists’ knowledge and commitment to media ethics can inspire them to be self-professional, the third mode of media accountability, as proposed by Bardoel & d’Haenens (2004). Similarly, to be more active and conscious of media accountability, the audience needs to fulfill s basic requirements including access to a computer and the Internet, media literacy, and knowledge of the media’s responsibility to society. Unfortunately, journalists in countries such as Nepal have to compromise on both due to a low level of literacy and a limited access to computers and the Internet. Online journalism in Nepal has been criticized for low levels of accountability in its mainstream media (Acharya, 2005; KC, 2010). Ethical practice is low because of various internal and external factors including how media outlets respond to public grievances, such as admitting mistakes and correcting them promptly; how media (or journalists) encourage the public to voice grievances against news media, and how they provide platform for critical opinion.

Without vibrant audiences and the realization of professional self by journalists, online journalism, just because of its technological features, may not be able to maintain its accountability more than its traditional counterparts. Nepal, a country representative of the developing world, can have a different story of accountability in online journalism, since it has a lower level of literacy and very limited access to computers and the Internet.[1] Very little is done to measure accountability practices in developing countries like Nepal, where the digital divide is huge and the audience awareness level is low. I argue that online journalism tends to be less accountable than traditional media like newspapers, where audiences are less aware of their rights and journalists’ responsibilities.


[1] According to Central Bureau of Statistics, 7.25% of total households (5,427,302) have a computer, and 3.33% households have access to the Internet (NPHC Report, 2012). Despite access to a computer and the Internet, many still don’t use online media content due to the 12-14 hours power cuts (also called load-shedding). The given statistics can be enough to imagine the picture of the digital divide and access to the Internet in Nepal.

Reference:

Acharya, U. (2005). Online media ethics: A study of issues of ethical standard of Nepal’s online media. Kathmandu: Center for Media Research Nepal. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from http://research.butmedia.org/downloads-resources/

Bardoel, J. & d’Haenens, L. (2004). Media responsibility and accountability: New conceptualizations and practices. Communications, 29(1). 5-25.

Black, J., Steele, B., Barney, R. (1999). Doing ethics in journalism, 3rd edition. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Canadian Association of Journalists. (2011). Ethical guidelines. Accessed date February 16, 2013, from http://www.caj.ca/?p=1776

Council of Europe. (1993) Resolution 1003 on the ethics of journalism.  Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe. Accessed date February 16, 2013 from http://assembly.coe.int/main.asp?Link=/documents/adoptedtext/ta93/eres1003.htm

Deuze, M. & Yeshua, D. (2001). Online journalists face new ethical dilemmas. Journal of mass media ethics, 16(4).  273-292,

Friend, C. & Singer, J. S. (2007). Online journalism ethics: Traditions and transitions. New York: M.E. Sharp.

Heikkilä, H., Domingo, D., Pies, J., Glowacki, M., Kus, M., & Baisnée, O. (2012). Media Accountability Goes Online: A transnational study on emerging practices and innovations. Working paper. Finland: Journalism Research and Development Centre, University of Tampere. Accessed date February 15, 2013, from http://www.mediaact.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/WP4_Outcomes/ WP4_Report.pdf

Hohmann, J. (2011). 10 Best practices for social media: Helpful guidelines for news organizations. University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communication: ASNE. Accessed date February 11, 2013, from http://asne.org/Files/pdf/10_Best_Practices_for_Social_Media.pdf.

Joseph, L. N. (2011). Correcting the record: The impact of the digital news age on the performance of press accountability. Journalism practice, 5(6), 704-718.

KC, B. (2010). Journalistic ethics in Nepal. In Y.B. Dura (Ed.), MBM Anthology Of Media Studies (pp.29-56). Kathmandu: Madan Bhandari Memorial College.

Kovach, B. & Rosenstiel, T. (2001). The elements of journalism. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Lasorsa, D.L., Lewis, S.C., and Holton, A. E. (2012). Normalizing twitter: Journalism practice in an emerging communication space. Journalism studies, 13(1). 19-36.

McQuail, D. (2005). McQuail’s mass communication theory. (5th edition). New Delhi: Vistaar Publications.

Merrill, J. C. (1997). Journalism ethics: Philosophical foundations for news media. New York: St. Martin Press, Inc.

Nepal Population and Housing Census Report 2011. (2012). Central Bureau of Statistics, Government of Nepal. Kathmandu.

Porlezza, C. (2012). Online media accountability- a new frontier. Studies in communication sciences, 12. 2-5.

Reuters. (2012). Reporting from the internet and using social media. Accessed date February 10, 2013, from http://handbook.reuters.com/index.php?title=Reporting_From_the_Internet_And_Using_ Social_Media

Singer, J. B. (2003). Who are these guys? The online challenge to the notion of journalistic professionalism. Journalism, 4(2). 139-163.

Singer, J. B. (2005). The political j-blogger: ‘Normalizing’ a new media form to fit old norms and practices. Journalism, 6(2). 173-198.

Singer, J.B., Tharp, M. P. & Haruta, A. (1999). ‘Online staffers: Superstars or second-class citizens?’. Newspaper research journal, 20(3). 29-47.

Society of Professional Journalists. (1996). Code of ethics. Accessed date February 16, 2013, from http://www.spj.org/pdf/ethicscode.pdf

Ward, Stephen J. A. (2010). Ethics for the New Mainstream. The New Journalist: Roles, Skills, and Critical Thinking. Eds. Paul Benedetti, Tim Currie and Kim Kierans, pp. 313-326. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications.

Ward, Stephen J. A. (2010). Global journalism ethics. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

White, A. (2009). Media accountability: setting standards for journalism and democracy. A paper presented to Bali Democracy Forum Workshop, December 9, 2009. Accessed date February 16, 2013, from http://ethicaljournalisminitiative.org/assets/docs/009/135/b548609-5902487.pdf

Whitehouse, G. (2010). Newsgathering and privacy: Expanding ethics codes to reflect change in the digital media age. Journal of mass media ethics, 25. 310-327.

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