The Global Handbook of Media Accountability
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The Global Handbook of Media Accountability

Susanne Fengler, Tobias Eberwein, Matthias Karmasin, Susanne Fengler, Tobias Eberwein, Matthias Karmasin

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eBook - ePub

The Global Handbook of Media Accountability

Susanne Fengler, Tobias Eberwein, Matthias Karmasin, Susanne Fengler, Tobias Eberwein, Matthias Karmasin

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About This Book

The Global Handbook of Media Accountability brings together leading scholars to de-Westernize the academic debate on media accountability and discuss different models of media self-regulation and newsroom transparency around the globe. With examination of the status quo of media accountability in43 countries worldwide, it offers a theoretically informed comparative analysis of accountability regimes of different varieties. As such, it constitutes the first interdisciplinary academic framework comparing structures of media accountability across all continents and creates an invaluable basis for further research and policymaking. It will therefore appeal to scholars and students of media studies and journalism, mass communication, sociology, and political science, as well as policymakers and practitioners.

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A global perspective

Susanne Fengler, Tobias Eberwein, Matthias Karmasin, Sandra Barthel, and Dominik Speck
DOI: 10.4324/9780429326943-2


The Global Handbook of Media Accountability (GLOHOMA) sets out to explore new grounds in the study of media accountability – a genuinely Western concept, developed in liberal democracies and firmly rooted in the conviction that media and journalism act under the conditions of press freedom, freedom of speech, and access to information and that no one should regulate journalism and journalistic content except journalists themselves. Powerful institutions have to be held to account, and while journalism’s function in society is to facilitate a pluralistic discourse, to act as the fourth estate, and to point out problems, the shortcomings and responsibilities of the media themselves have to be discussed as well.
This is, of course, not the framework for media in the majority of countries around the globe. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index counts no more than 23 full democracies worldwide in 2020, along with 52 flawed democracies (EIU, 2021, p. 3). The University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Index points out that 54% of the world’s population live in autocracies in 2020 – a record number since the establishment of this index in 2001 (V-Dem Institute, 2020, p. 6). Severe backlashes to democratic transformation can be observed around the globe, from Brazil to Myanmar, from Turkey to Poland. Simultaneously, institutions monitoring journalism, like Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, alert to a decline of press freedom in many countries. This implies that the concept of responsible self-regulation – which grounds in media freedom – is by no means accepted in all parts of the world and that spaces for media accountability may even be shrinking in many media systems. The concept of media accountability also rests on the notion that media users have a choice in a free media market, between media that are more or less trustworthy. In the deep recession following the COVID-19 crisis, independent news outlets are likely to be the first to suffer, reducing the audience’s choices even more tightly to media content controlled by the state or its cronies and by partisan interest groups in society.
As a consequence, two key issues are raised: (i) Is there indeed a need for a global analysis of media accountability? (ii) Can there be a concept of media accountability that reaches out beyond the so-called West and thus beyond the boundaries of the few established democracies? In many countries with restricted press freedom, frameworks for media accountability fundamentally differ from those in democratic states: In this context, many journalists’ associations and media councils have long been tools to control access to the profession, and the concept of media self-regulation in practice only disguises censorship and government influence in a large number of countries.
A decisively positive answer has been provided by one of the pioneers of media accountability research in the Global South, Wisdom J. Tettey, who argues that we need a global exchange about scholarly results on, and best practices in, media accountability, to safeguard media freedom. Media scholars, media practitioners, and media audiences across countries “all stand to gain from a responsible media environment that helps improve … democratic deficits” (Tettey, 2006, p. 246).
Right from the start of our comparative research on media accountability, we felt that we needed to take developments in non-European regions into consideration as well. Therefore, Tunisia and Jordan – as two case studies from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – were integrated into our first comparative research initiative, the EU-funded Media Accountability and Transparency in Europe (MediaAcT) project (for a summary, see Fengler, Eberwein, Mazzoleni, Porlezza, & Russ-Mohl, 2014). MediaAcT ran from 2010 to 2013 with a consortium of researchers from 14 countries. At that time, Tunisia and Jordan were – each country in its own way – deeply affected by the uprisings of 2011 in the MENA region. While Tunisia emerged from the so-called Arab Spring and ensuing transformation processes as the only country to make a considerable leap toward democracy, Jordan has not loosened its tight grip on media and journalism in the years since. Nonetheless, we found emerging structures of media accountability online in both countries, with nascent instruments like journalists’ blogs and media-critical podcasts striving for media accountability toward the public and the profession – not toward the government. Many inspirations to think about de-Westernized models of media accountability also emerged from the research the MediaAcT consortium conducted in Poland, Romania, and Estonia – three exemplary Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, each in various phases of political transformation. We found, for example, press councils in-existent in Poland and Romania, and rather dysfunctional after an initial phase of optimism in Estonia. Follow-up research conducted for the European Handbook of Media Accountability (Eberwein, Fengler, & Karmasin, 2018) between 2015 and 2018 confirmed that the processes of deregulation and liberalization in the media systems of Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 resulted in fragile, at best, media accountability practices in many CEE countries. With dysfunctional professional organizations and media markets impacted by political parallelism and dominated by media oligarchs, news ombudspersons installed by means of co-regulation in public broadcasting systems remain one of the few media accountability instruments (MAIs) to be found there. Given the weakness or vulnerability of the industry even in many Eastern – and Southern – EU member states, NGOs and media watchdog initiatives from civil society have emerged as important institutionalized instruments to hold the media to account, along with media blogs and media-critical voices from within the journalistic profession on Twitter and other social media.
Certainly, it was a major impetus for us to share ideas about media accountability with colleagues who work under much more difficult circumstances, to spread knowledge about the media accountability concept and inspire empirical studies across research cultures – and to disseminate awareness for this normative concept of self-regulation and self-reflection. However, we have gradually become less of a sender and much more of a receiver of information. Even media accountability systems in established liberal democracies have undergone fundamental changes in recent years. In many Western countries, trust in media – along with trust in politics and trust in institutions – has eroded dramatically. Fundamental shifts regarding the patterns of media use and the structure of media and revenue markets have made media and journalism more exposed to criticism from their various stakeholders – and more vulnerable to attempts to influence news outlets for the strategic interests of national and international actors. While many Western media professionals have reacted to these challenges of their credibility by new initiatives to demonstrate accountability and transparency – the Trust Project, the Ethical Journalism Network, and the Global Council to Build Trust in Media and Fight Misinformation are some examples – policymakers in other countries, even in the Global North, have tightened their grip on independent media and gradually weakened the concept of self-control, as can be observed even in EU member states such as Hungary and Poland.
Democratic systems seem to be more endangered than ever in the aftermath of the current COVID-19 crisis, and it is the aim of this study to identify early warning signs – factors that may weaken the concept of media accountability in seemingly established democracies – and to look for innovative instruments and practices to nurture the concept of media accountability across the globe. Thus, this volume is also about learning from each other, by means of worldwide comparison.

Media accountability: key concepts and definitions

The concept of media accountability1 is rooted in the conviction that media and journalism fulfill an important function in modern societies by observing the behavior of actors from various social systems (politics, economy, law, but also art, science, sports, and so on) and making it transparent and understandable for the public at large to serve the public interest ( McQuail, 1992). This function seems to be even more important in the digital age, despite an abundance of information available in a variety of forms. Alongside a variety of nonprofessional communicators, journalists continue to act as gatekeepers and sense-makers, serving their audiences by selecting and explaining the news that is necessary for an active and self-determined participation in social life (Vos & Heinderyckx, 2015). Therefore, the idea of accountable journalism is closely connected to the concept of democracy (Nieminen, 2016). However, the democratic function of media and journalism can only unfold if journalistic actors are willing and able to accept their social mandate and act responsibly. As McQuail (2003, p. 19) points out: “accountable communication exists where authors (originators, sources, or gatekeepers) take responsibility for the quality and consequences of their publication, orient themselves to audiences and others affected, and respond to their expectations and those of the wider society”. Yet, such an aim only seems to be realistic if media actors are mostly free from external constraints – or at least find a strategy to co-exist with the political, economic, cultural, technological, and other context factors that influence journalistic practice in their respective situation.
Even in liberal democracies, however, journalists do not always live up to the high normative expectations that come along with their professional responsibility. Media scandals, such as the watershed phone hacking scandal at the now-defunct U.K. tabloid News of the World (Ramsay & Moore, 2019) or the more recent controversy around the frauds of reporter Claas Relotius at the German news magazine Der Spiegel (Eberwein, 2021), regularly trigger outraged public discussions and raise doubts about the accountability of many actors in the field. In light of such cases, the necessity of establishing effective means for assessing and safeguarding the quality of journalistic performance is largely undisputed, even among most members of the profession. However, the issue remains questionable as to which kinds of instruments and mechanisms promise to offer the most sustainable impact in the pursuit of this aim – not only in the context of Western media systems and journalism cultures.
In media and communication research, various terms and concepts are used to describe the processes of quality management within and beyond the journalistic profession. The terms media self-control or media self-regulation ( Puppis, 2009a) are commonly used to denote those practices that members of the profession initiate to motivate responsible media performance and monitor journalistic output, building on the absence of state interference (Hans-Bredow-Institut, 2006, p. 35). The broader concept of media accountability, on the other hand, discusses “any non-State means of making media responsible towards the public” (Bertrand, 2000, p. 108) and consequently does not only include journalists but also media users and other stakeholders in the process of quality management.2 In the course of the last decade, the concept of media transparency (Meier & Reimer, 2011; Fengler & Speck, 2019) has gained increasing academic attention. This concept focuses on a variety of instruments, particularly at the level of the media organization, that can contribute to preserve or regain trust in journalism by providing information about newsroom processes and the participating actor...

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