The accountability of the media is a normative notion that underlies the balance of freedom and social responsibility across media structure, performance, and product. In order to grasp the concept, we need to understand how closely related the two competing values of freedom and responsibility are.
Press freedom has been constitutionally protected to guarantee a free flow of information by which citizens are empowered and directly involved in public life. From the birth of the press its freedom has been strongly connected with social expectations for the media to protect the public interest and to improve the quality of democracy. This is why James Carey points to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as “a compact description of a desirable political society” (Merritt & McCombs 2004, 13). In short, the most important rationale of press freedom lies in the belief in the positive role of the media to build desirable citizenship, community, and democracy.
In that regard, press freedom is not an absolute value or a natural right. Even in most advanced democracies, press freedom has been constrained for various reasons – when it is in conflict with other constitutional rights or in order to satisfy various public interest requirements. Settling conflicts between different constitutional rights is largely a legal matter, and limiting the freedom of the media so as to fulfill its social responsibilities involves many complicated issues. Fundamentally, it is a matter of balancing freedom and responsibility, and two measures have been used primarily for that purpose: the market and the law. Neither approach, however, has proven successful. The free market measures often fail to secure plurality in media ownership and diversity in media content, and many other public interest requirements have been sacrificed at the expense of pursuing business profits. On the other hand, legal regulations, such as censorship and other repressive measures legislated to protect the public good, often infringe freedom itself.
Many alternatives to these two approaches have been suggested, the most important, arguably, being the concept of social responsibility. The theory of social responsibility emphasizes the importance of media freedom to scrutinize power and to provide accurate information; there are calls further for the media to serve as a public forum for the exchange of comments and criticisms and to fulfill its responsibility to represent culturally and politically diverse perspectives. The theory suggests that the media’s obligations to society be fulfilled primarily by self-regulation, i.e., by the voluntary efforts of media owners and practitioners. Governmental intervention, however, is not ruled out; state regulation is justified when public interest is at stake and internal regulation is not sufficient. However, social responsibility theory was overly optimistic about the media’s willingness to meet its responsibilities and the efficacy of self-control. Although the theory contributed to the notion of media responsibility and to promoting a positive understanding of freedom as freedom for, not as freedom from, it was not successful in detailing exactly how to hold the free market media socially responsible. The concept of media accountability fills in such a lacuna.
Linguistically, accountability and responsibility are linked to the general notion of answerability: responsibility concerns more the question of what while accountability is related more to how. Otherwise stated, the key issue of responsibility is to define to what social needs the media should respond while that of accountability has to do with how to compel the media to respond to those needs (McQuail 2003). Media accountability, however, remains in a conceptual muddle. Among various competing definitions, the one provided by Dennis McQuail is particularly noteworthy. According to him, media accountability refers to both “voluntary and involuntary processes by which the media answer directly or indirectly to their society for the quality and/or consequences of publication” (McQuail 2005, 207). Along this line, media accountability can be considered to involve two sub-dimensions: liability for any harm caused by publication and answerability for the quality of publication.
In short, media accountability is a much wider concept than self-regulation, denoting both the media’s legal obligation to prevent or reduce any negative consequences of its practices and its moral duty to provide quality service for the public. Accountability is also a process-oriented concept defining how the media answer, to whom, and for what. There exist diverse ways of achieving media accountability, which include legal and legislative regulation, and involve the market, the civil society (or the public), and the media profession itself (McQuail 2003). No single approach can be sufficient; various combinations are desirable. In the long run, the approaches that emphasize the role and responsibility of civil society and/or the media profession – approaches concerned more with quality control – should play a more central function. In this respect, it is worthy to mention the media accountability system (MAS) suggested by Bertrand (1997; 2005). MAS aims at improving the quality of the media primarily by evaluation, monitoring, education, and feedback. The idea of MAS emphasizes the roles of media owners, professionals, and members of the public in defining the media’s responsibilities and in dealing with the transgressions. MASs may take a variety of forms; they can include printed or broadcast documents (opinion boxes, letters-to-the-editor, online message boards, or forums for immediate feedback; codes of ethics; journalism reviews; regular media sections; etc.), involve individuals or groups (in-house critics, media reporters, press ombudsmen, citizens appointed to editorial boards, press councils, other pressure groups, etc.), and consist of various processes (education, journalist training, regular opinion surveys, non-commercial research, etc.). To sum up, media accountability represents an effort to establish the rules by which the media perform socially expected functions in a democracy while preserving freedom and extending it to more people and incorporating more diverse voices.
- Bertrand, C.-J. (1997). Media accountability systems: An overview. In U. Sonnenberg (ed.), Organising media accountability: Experiences in Europe. Maastricht: European Journalism Centre, pp. 7–16.
- Bertrand, C.-J. (2005). Introduction: Media accountability. Pacific Journalism Review, 11(2), 5 –16.
- McQuail, D. (2003). Media accountability and freedom of publication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- McQuail, D. (2005). McQuail’s mass communication theory, 5th edn. London: Sage.
- Merritt, M., & McCombs, M. (2004). The two w’s of journalism: The why and what of public affairs reporting. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.