Media literacy and media accountability
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Media literacy and media accountability

Dominik Speck

One Tuesday afternoon in November 2022, fears of a further dramatic, even nuclear escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war rose. That day, a missile had struck a village in Poland, close to the Ukrainian border, killing two people. A report by The Associated Press (AP), one of the world’s most renowned news agencies, indicated that it had been a Russian missile, based on information from a single US intelligence source that spoke on the condition of anonymity.

That information proved wrong only shortly later, with NATO and Polish officials stating that the missile was most likely Russian-made, but fired by Ukrainian air defense forces and then went off course. AP corrected its article the next day, and later on sacked a reporter, a seasoned military expert and investigative journalist, who got the information from the unnamed source in the first place. The news agency also said that its standards had been violated.

According to an article from The Daily Beast, the AP had “scared much of the world” with its report. Many media outlets repeated the information on the missile being Russian, as the news agency is a trusted source, that had built its story on an apparently knowledgeable insider, an – albeit anonymous – official, even though the report mentioned that the Polish government had not yet confirmed the information.

Despite being an extreme example, the AP missile report case illustrates the enormous power the news media still hold. The case further demonstrates the importance of journalists and the news media investigating errors, rendering an account of what has gone wrong, and taking over responsibility for their actions and practices – even though the sacking of the reporter had not gone unchallenged, as the decision to break the story apparently included other editors as well. At any rate, the case also provides an example of how important discussions about media accountability are.

The concept of media accountability roots firmly in a social responsibility approach to the role of journalism and media in society: By observing actors, events, and developments in a variety of societal fields, journalists fulfil an essential role, at best contributing to the well-being of society at large. However, it is equally significant to observe the observers, holding them to account according to ethical principles and other norms, and providing spaces for constant discussions on and advancement of what good journalistic practice actually means. As the late communication scholar Denis McQuail argued, “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.”1

Too often, though, journalists may fail to respond to input and feedback from their audiences properly – not necessarily purposefully, but rather caused by a variety of constraints. In many places around the world, newsrooms struggle with limited resources. Maintaining a constant and meaningful dialogue with the public though requires funding. At the same time, members of the public may lack awareness of the possibilities they have to hold the news media to account. Efforts to increase media literacy are thus crucial for effective media accountability. This article sets out to explore the linkages between media literacy and accountability in more detail.

Media accountability instruments

Modern democracies – having been described as “monitory democracies” by political scientist John Keane2 – may provide a variety of forums in which the media may be asked to explain their practices, apologize for mistakes, reply to complaints and, ultimately, to use the words of McQuail, take responsibility for the quality and consequences of their publication. A variety of media accountability instruments have emerged, i.e., means and mechanisms to achieve (greater) accountability of the news media – or, to say the least, trying to do so. These instruments include institutionalized efforts to hold the media to account, such as press councils or media observatories established at universities.

However, media accountability does also comprise less institutionalized instruments, such as media criticism by individual users on social media, or ad-hoc protest groups reacting to wrongdoings of one particular news media outlet by providing a short-lived watch blog. Media accountability thus relates to concepts of modern (media) governance which emphasize that policymaking, regulation, and industry standard-setting are not only conducted through formal and government-driven mechanisms, but in a large variety of formal and less formal settings and by stakeholders on different levels.

While media ethics as well as the relationship of the news media and their public have always been topics of interest for practitioners and theorists of the media alike, roughly at the beginning of the 21st century, research on media accountability and transparency became an emerging field in international media and communication research. One of its pioneers, Claude-Jean Bertrand, described as media accountability “any non-state means of making the media responsible towards the public”.3 Inherent to this concept is thus an understanding of the direction of accountability measures: The news media should turn their attention to publicly explaining their work to society.

We may distinguish different actors who provide forums to hold the media to account, or, in other words, operate media accountability instruments. Press councils, for example, are usually self-regulatory bodies. Even though some of them are set up by law, it is mostly the profession of journalists and representatives of the publishing industry that run these councils and deliberate on complaints. As a result of this embeddedness within the media industry and their often poor opportunities (or willingness) to effectively sanction misconduct, press councils in many places around the world have been criticized as “toothless tigers” that barely help to make news media coverage more responsible.

Even though this is certainly not true in all cases, it demonstrates the importance of widening the concept of media accountability from self-regulatory efforts on the level of profession-wide bodies to a greater variety of actors and instruments. According to the 2022 Global Handbook of Media Accountability edited by Susanne Fengler, Tobias Eberwein and Matthias Karmasin,4 in countries with – for whichever reasons – rather weak accountability opportunities at the level of the media profession, other actors may step in. In many Latin American countries, civil society actors are highly involved in holding the media to account, for instance through university-run journalism observatories. In the US, where efforts to set obligatory standards on the profession-wide level have historically rather been condemned as interferences with the free market principle, individual newsrooms are important drivers of media accountability efforts, for example through employing public editors or paying greater attention to editorial guidelines at the company level.

Further, while one should avoid an overly naïve “techno-optimism” that expects digital technologies to ultimately “liberate” the media sphere, it is fair to say that the emergence of social networks, to name but one effect of digitization, has increased both the number and scope of forums available to discuss (mal-) practice of the news media. In this vein, a holistic approach to media accountability involves a variety of forums, actors, and instruments participating in the discussion of journalistic (mal-)practice and negotiation of consequences, including members of the audience.

Not least, efforts to bring in “ordinary” citizens to media accountability may help to balance the misuse of established instruments as hidden (or sometimes only barely disguised) tools of governmental interference in the media field: In an effort to tame the media, press councils or similar bodies may be captured by representatives of the state or their allies.

Public accountability of the media though requires knowledge on the part of the citizens. On the one hand, this quite obviously includes knowledge about the existence of media accountability instruments and how to make use of them. Establishing press councils in emerging democracies with their typically mushrooming number of news outlets is fine, but the efficiency of these bodies may be easily challenged if only a handful of people know how to use its complaints’ mechanism. A formal complaints’ procedure at a public broadcasting company may only rarely be used if the broadcaster does not advertise this opportunity for audience feedback too much, or if its editorial standards remain opaque.

On the other hand, to make use of even the most well-designed media accountability instruments, citizens would need to understand the basic functions and roles of the news media in society – or, to be more specific, their particular society. To return to our two previous examples, the press council in an emerging democracy may be operating with efficient sanctioning mechanisms, but members of the public may not be able to use it if they do not recognize breaches of journalism ethics in the first place. The complaints’ mechanism of the public broadcaster may fail to set standards efficiently if larger parts of the audience lack an understanding of what public broadcasting is, and the legal and social principles that underlay its operation in their respective society.

Media literacy and audience engagement

This is where media literacy and audience engagement enter the field. Given the often-derogatory tone of social media debates on media performance, journalists may – and perhaps understandably so – be tempted to perceive efforts to intensify dialogue with the public as useless. Members of complaints commissions at press councils or ombudsman offices may feel disenchanted by the fact that it is often activists from the radical sites of the political spectrum that make use of these mechanisms. Striving for greater media literacy is no cure-all but may help to stimulate awareness for media accountability at least.

Efforts to increase media literacy – whether at schools, in community projects, or through dedicated events that foster dialogues between journalists and their public – should consequently factor in the concept. While increasing knowledge on media accountability is a task for any actor engaged in media literacy training, the news media themselves do bear a responsibility to increase public awareness about the variety of instruments that serve to hold them to account. Increasing media literacy is even more crucial in times when potentially any citizen can raise their feedback or complaints about news media coverage to a larger public through social media.

The widespread perception of a dramatic drop in public trust in the news media – which, globally seen, proves true in some countries but wrong in others – may also be caused by the heated debates on news media performance that take place not only, but in particular on social networks. Disgruntled media users may easily and rapidly spread their criticism online, joined by a potentially large crowd of peers, whereas in yesterday’s media landscape only a few had the will, energy, or time to send a letter to the editor or call in to a TV or radio show.

As outlined, this does not need to be a negative development; it may, quite contrarily, have exposed and opened up debates about media performance and journalistic practices to larger and more pluriform audiences compared to, say, merely self-regulatory settings, in which often birds of a feather flock together. However, the shifting shape of media criticism would require a better-informed public, in turn enabling an informed and constructive dialogue on media ethics and accountability.

What is needed then for a greater public awareness of media accountability and its instruments? The following measures could help to increase the literacy of audiences about the existing landscapes of media accountability instruments in national media systems, which, as global research has shown, differ somewhat considerably from country to country:5

Increasing access: Actors involved in media literacy efforts (scholars, teachers, …) and audience engagement (newsrooms, media CSOs, …) should provide information about the most significant media accountability instruments, and how to make use of them in an informed and constructive way. Organizations providing media accountability instruments – i.e., press councils, newsrooms, media CSOs, … – should factor in awareness campaigns to their activities.

Increasing knowledge: Stipulating awareness about the production processes of media content, the ethical and professional rules and norms involved, and not to forget the structures of the media system is crucial for media users to draw solid conclusions on journalistic performance and thus make proper use of media accountability instruments, such as complaints procedures by press councils or broadcasting commissions, or to raise an informed voice about media (mal-)practice in social networks.

Increasing participation: This demand addresses less the media literacy field and more those institutions and individuals running media accountability instruments. Increasing opportunities for participation, such as through audience inclusion into newsroom deliberations, may, in turn, increase the knowledge of the participating users about the processes that shape journalism. While accountability is, in principle, possible without user participation, the latter provides additional insights for an interested audience. In itself, participation is neither a panacea for the ills of journalism nor a guarantee for more efficient media accountability. However, dialogue is a crucial element of standard-setting procedures. Often, media accountability though only includes dialogue between journalism practitioners, not considering audience feedback too much.

Summing up, it is time to bring media literacy, audience engagement and media accountability closer together, as they can benefit from each other. Cases of media accountability, such as the example of the AP alert on an allegedly Russian missile striking Poland, are regularly well-suited to illustrate the causes and consequences of journalistic behaviour and may help to make media users more literate about the processes and routines of news-making. These are, after all, not as easy as it may seem at first glance, particularly in a delicate breaking news context. In the said case, one could have a look into the AP Statement on News Values and Principles, which elaborates that the agency’s reports require more than one source when sourcing is anonymous.

Further, according to the guidelines, such stories should be held while reaching out to additional sources for confirmation. However, no rule comes without an exception: The same paragraph states that in rare cases, just one source might suffice: “when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy”. Easy to judge? Let’s have an informed discussion!

Notes

1. McQuail, D. (2003). Media accountability and freedom of publication. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 19.

2. Keane, J. (2009). The life and death of democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.

3. Bertrand, C. J. (2000). Media ethics & accountability systems. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction, p. 107.

4. Fengler, S., Eberwein, T., & Karmasin, M. (2022). The Global Handbook of Media Accountability. London, New York: Routledge.

5. Fengler, Eberwein, & Karmasin: The Global Handbook of Media Accountability.

Dominik Speck is a researcher at the Institute of Journalism and the Erich Brost Institute for International Journalism at TU Dortmund University. He also has several years of experience as a freelance journalist specialized on covering media issues, working mostly for the German trade journal epd medien. He studied journalism and political science at TU Dortmund University, Ruhr University Bochum and Istanbul Bilgi University, Turkey.

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