Question: Are the news media adequately accountable for their reporting? Is there a need for legislative reform?
There is a common concern that the news media in the modern age is no longer being held accountable for its reporting; that is, not fulfilling the expectation that it behaves in a certain way that contributes to the public good (particularly in relation to the political sphere). Since the late 17th century the media’s vital role in democratic governance has been evident as a result of its significant power and function to oversee the actions of the government (Schultz 1998). To this day this role of the media remains to be a fundamental aspect of both modern democratic theory and practice. In this essay, the news media’s general role in a democracy will be examined, such as the way in which it promotes it and its impact on the protection of human rights. Additionally, the various constraints in certain democracies that can limit the media’s ability to always hold a positive role will be explored in order to expose possible legislative reforms to enhance media accountability. Finally, the ways in which the media is used in order to support development and democracy will be examined, such as its historical victories in exposing government corruption and instigating reconciliation between warring groups. Whether or not the news media is adequately accountable for its reporting depends on the particular democracy in which it exists as they can vary greatly. This essay will contend that in developed democracies (such as Australia) the media’s accountability can be perceived as adequate at this point in time, however it will also acknowledge that legislative reform is certainly needed in many other democracies that are less established.
Democracy is near impossible to be achieved without a free press; through playing a myriad of key roles that will be discussed an adequate level of accountability to the public can be maintained for the media’s reporting. The press is widely called the ‘Fourth Estate’ to describe it as a somewhat additional branch of government that ensures those governing are kept in check (Schultz 1998). Without the providing of this check and balance, governments cannot truly be effective. Thomas Jefferson as a key historic governmental figure supported this idea, arguing that the truth of any matter will only emerge through the exchanging of information via the press (Holmes 1991). The notion of the media being a ‘watchdog’ is widely accepted; that is, it acts as a guardian of the public interest that ensures citizens are consistently well informed on the actions of political officials and institutions (Schultz 1998). Particularly in those democracies that are less developed where legislatures and judiciaries are either powerless or corrupt, the media is often left as the last bastion against the abuse of power (Schultz 1998). Furthermore, the presence of the media provides for a vital arena of public debate between those that govern and the governed. This increased level of debate not only ensures that every citizen is given the opportunity to contribute, but it also allows for enhanced decision making due to the collaboration of many different views and ideas (Holmes 1991). In contrast (for further elaboration), during authoritarian rule, obviously the quality of the laws and policies established were significantly lower due to minimal discussion and debate and the absence of a free and accountable media to help build a civic culture (Schultz 1998). Sen (1999 Pg 43) described critical public discussion to be an extremely ‘important requirement [for] good public policy.’ Additionally, the media’s accountability is particularly evident when one looks at disaster. Sen (1999) makes a further point in relation to this, asserting that a free press in a functioning democracy contributes greatly through the spread of information (which somewhat acts as an early warning system) that can significantly impact policies for (e.g.) famine prevention. The United Nations Development Programme (1997) adds to this, contending that if (for example) poverty is to be addressed, equally as important is the transfer of information to those in need. This is due to the fact that it would allow for them to participate in the political process and public life; it is difficult for an individual to assert their rights if they don’t even know they exist. Through the media involving those that are marginalised, their views and issues become part of public debate, and thus the likelihood that these views be addressed is obviously far more likely than if they remain unheard (Sen 1999). The media plays a very important role via its accountability in a democratic society; nonetheless constraints do exist in some democracies that attempt to compromise this role.
Particularly in newly established democracies, the reality is that the media’s accountability can be affected negatively, prompting the potential need for legislative reform. Despite constitutional guarantees, in many democracies the media is greatly restricted by over-bearing laws, monopolistic ownership, and sometimes even physical force. In 2002, 136 journalists were imprisoned and 20 were killed as a result of their reporting in new democracies not satisfying the authorities (Committee to Protect Journalists 2003). In addition to state control constraints, a mostly global trend is beginning to dominate media markets in the modern age as a result of increased organisational competition. This involves a ‘dumbing down’ of the news; in other words, an increased focus on shallow and sensational topics that aim more so to entertain rather than inform audiences of matters that are far more important (Selizer 2004). Consequently, public discourse is also negatively impacted as populations respond to this ‘dumbed down’ news that they are receiving (Selizer 2004). So not only does this modern worldwide trend compromise media accountability to the public, it also affects the public’s own ability to recognise good news from bad news, making demands for change far less likely to substantiate. Moreover, in many countries ownership of the media is often controlled by just a few large dominating corporations that have taken over all smaller news organisations. With this high concentration of media ownership, there is not only minimal diversity but also strong biases in the news being presented to us (Djankov 2001 et al). Media tycoons (particularly in new democracies) tend to use their broadcast stations or newspapers to pursue their own vested interests such as the promotion of their business interests and political agenda (Djankov 2001 et al). In essence, the interests of these few people are manipulating the media through themselves determining the content that is to be publicised. In order to address some of these constraints on the media, recommendations can certainly be made to attempt at instigating action for change where it is needed. For instance, sometimes the media is targeted by particularly powerful people and groups that endeavour to silence it to benefit their own interests. Primarily in developing democracies where (for example) strict licensing requirements may be demanded of the media, it is of paramount importance that authoritarian laws such as this are repealed and replaced with more liberal legislation (Committee to Protect Journalists 2003). Additionally, legal and judicial reforms are vital to ensure that journalists’ rights are enforced in court while those that do them harm are prosecuted. Only this way can it be ensured that the media has the freedom to report on important issues and remain accountable to the public. It is to be acknowledged that media laws in developed democracies are certainly far from perfect, and indeed they could be tweaked to improve media accountability. However, the Australian media for example, enjoys a large amount of freedom with guaranteed rights protecting it and is thus significantly safe from harm or stringent laws. As a result, it can be argued that legislative reform is not of immediate importance. A final area to be discussed in this essay is the media’s practices that have promoted democracy and positive governance, shedding light on its accountability to the public.
News organisations in many countries epitomise the democratic ideal of the media as a tool for information, a public forum, and as an establisher of consensus and harmony. If a society is to be truly democratic citizen participation is paramount; the media acknowledges this through ensuring that the populations are consistently engaged with the latest in the political sphere (Schultz 1998). For example, aiding them to make informed choices in regards to whom they should vote for and the particular policies that should and shouldn’t be supported. Through mediums such as public-affairs programs the media provides enough detailed information to equip voters with the ability to be able to critically analyse the political sphere and are thus likely to engage with it far more than they would otherwise be capable of (Schultz 1998). In the modern age of widespread global travel it is especially difficult for a country’s media to inform all of its citizens when they inhabit other areas across the world (Zelizer 2004). As a result, the use of the internet as a medium for the transfer of information has been adopted and proven to be highly effective. For example, early in the 21st century in the Romanian local elections, a large array of online information portals were established to ensure access to the latest political news was available to even citizens living on the other side of the world (Ulmanu 2000). Once again, this is evidence of the media endeavouring to fulfil its accountability to the public; in this way it is through acting not only as an information tool but as a public forum for critical debate. Also related to this is the way in which the media acts as a builder of peace and consensus. This is relevant because if violence and strife exists within a democratic society, the political process cannot consequently thrive as a result of peaceful critical discussion likely to be non-existent. In many societies the media tends to play a key role in providing methods of mediation to warring groups with the aim of public order being re-taken as promptly as possible (Bambang 2002). Many critics argue that this is not the case, and that the media itself often fuels violence via (e.g.) reporting incorrect facts and reinforcing prejudices (Bambang 2002). For example, in the midst of the mass conflict in Rwanda during the 1990s, a radio station (funded by international donations) was being used by extremists in support of genocide (Bambang 2002). While there are indeed cases in the past that depict poor actions on the media’s part in fulfilling its accountability, much has been done to reverse this. For instance, many media organisations worldwide now train their journalists in what is dubbed ‘peace journalism’ (Bambang 2002). This consists of the promotion of reconciliation via careful reportage that does not take stances on particular topics but rather gives voice to all of the differing viewpoints. Further, peace journalism resists justifications for violence, and rather than focusing on the violence itself it magnifies the affects it is having upon innocent individuals and communities (Bambang 2002). Not only this, it also attempts to bridge differences between warring groups in the hopes of a resolution being achieved. In the modern age (particularly in highly developed democracies) this form of reporting is the default method in times of war/crises.
It can be concluded that the news media is indeed adequately accountable for its reporting, and at this time it does not need to be a priority to attain further legislative reform. Of course, it is important to recognise that this certainly depends upon the particular democratic society in which is being focused on as they can vary significantly in regards to their medias and their levels of accountability to that particular society. However, in most developed democracies the media’s reporting can be perceived as currently adequate. This has been supported in this essay through referring to the various roles the media can be seen to play in the public’s interest. It acts as a ‘watchdog’ (or more formally as the ‘Fourth Estate) in order to ensure the government is kept in check and power is not abused; additionally it often acts effectively as a bridge between the public and the government when there is corruption amongst institutional bodies. It acts as a public arena in which all citizens are given the opportunity to contribute to the political process; this allows for improved decision making which leads to the establishment of laws that apply to the population as a whole (including those living in poverty that would otherwise have no knowledge (or access) of political participation. Secondly, this essay addressed the various constraints upon the media (particularly in those democracies that are relatively new and less developed). In some of these cases media accountability is not adequate and legislative reform would be ideal to (for example) protect journalists from any form of harm or harassment that compromises their ability to report truthfully and remain accountable to the public. Finally, the media plays the role of an information tool and public forum, educating voters on the latest political updates (regardless of their location) and thus protecting the threads of democracy that citizen participation is central to. In addition to this, such participation is made possible through the media promoting peace and consensus, endeavouring to keep conflict and violence levels low so as to not disrupt the political process and voters’ vital role in it. The media acts as a very important mechanism for democracy through public accountability. While this can at times be compromised, all in all it is adequate at this time and legislative reform should not be considered a priority.
Bambang Wisudo. P (2002), ‘Broadening Access to Information as a Way of Ending War Journalism,’ paper presented in a conference on ‘Access to Information in Southeast Asia,’ Thailand.
Committee to Protect Journalists (2003), ‘Attacks on the Press in 2002,’ New York: Committee to Protect Journalists.
Djankov. S, McLeish. C, Nenova. T, & Shleifer. A, (2001), ‘Who Owns the Media?‘ Draft paper for the World Bank’s World Development Report.
Holmes, Stephen (1991), ‘Liberal constraints on private power? Democracy and the Mass Media,’ Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21-42.
Schultz, Julianne (1998), ‘Reviving the Fourth Estate. Democracy, Accountability and the Media’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sen, Amartya (1999), ‘Development and Freedom,’ New York: Anchor Books.
Ulmanu, Alex (2000), “Romanian Election Enters Net Battleground,” in Online Journalism Review, retrieved from http://www.ojr.org/ojr/technology/1017962590.php.
United Nations Development Programme, ‘Corruption and Good Governance: Discussion Paper 3,’ (1997), published by the Management Development and Governance Division, Bureau for Policy and Programme Support.
Zelizer, B (2004), ‘Taking Journalism Seriously: News and the Academy’, London: Sage.