The notion of media accountability concerns how to balance freedom and social responsibility in various aspects such as media structure, performance, and products. Accountability of the news is a notion concerning media products, especially public affairs reporting. News accountability may involve two different sub-dimensions: liability and answerability (McQuail 2005). The former mainly addresses the issues of how to prevent or reduce potential harm or danger caused by news content and focuses on imposing on the media material penalties based upon private or public laws. The latter notion, on the other hand, concerns how to control and improve the quality of news and emphasizes more noncoercive measures such as debate, negotiation, and dialogue between the news media and their claimants. The notion of answerability is most concretely expressed in various codes of ethics or professional conduct that journalists or media industries have voluntarily accepted as their own professional or managerial guidelines. The answerability approach further underscores the role of news critics and those people affected by the news, beyond that of media owners and practitioners.
In sum, news accountability is a normative notion which explores how to balance freedom and quality content serving public interests, and it can best be reached by combining external (or imposed) and internal (or voluntary) regulations. The law and codes of ethics deal with essentially the same issues and they mainly include: truthfulness, honesty, and accuracy of information; correction of errors; prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race/ethnicity/religion; respect for privacy; prohibition of accepting bribes or any other benefits; fair means in information collection; prohibition of any outsider influences on the journalistic work; prohibition of discrimination on the bases of sex/social class; freedom of expression of any kind; and professional secrecy (Sonnenberg 1997). And these issues can be condensed into a few more fundamental normative expectations for the news: freedom and independence, equality and diversity, and truthfulness. These can also be regarded as the most essential qualities required for the news to be socially accountable.
Throughout its history, the pursuit of freedom has been the most respected value guiding media practice. Among a wide variety of ways of interpreting press freedom, the concept of accountability is close to a positive notion of liberty which emphasizes “freedom for” rather than “freedom from”. This perspective does not acknowledge the absolute value of press freedom. Press freedom is rather a form of moral duty and is relative to ends. Press freedom essentially means the state of being independent from external pressures such as governmental, financial, or organizational forces. It can, hence, be a good indicator of press freedom whether the news reports relevant and significant matters even if no immediate profits or political advantages are expected. Such editorial independence can best be achieved with the support of the public, whose members are the audiences, consumers, and voters. In short, serving more people with quality content can be the best way for the news media to secure their freedom.
Equality is another important normative quality expected of the news. The norm of equality is a principle underscoring news service for more voices and opinions based upon the rule of fair access in time, space, and priority. Equality, therefore, is closely relevant to such normative criteria as diversity and objectivity (McQuail 2005). Diversity in the news primarily refers to the degree to which the content truly and exhaustively reflects a range of perspectives on a given issue or a range of informational and cultural needs in a society. Objectivity, often equated with neutrality, has been a dominant norm of western journalism. Neutrality assumes no partisan orientation, but news may advocate a particular side if such advocacy is based upon factuality, accuracy, relevance, and completeness. In this regard, the notion of due impartiality – the idea which supports subjective judgment and advocacy for certain values such as freedom, human rights, justice, and democracy – can be deemed a more proper acting guideline to accomplish objective reporting.
Meanwhile, the disinterested pursuit of truth has been noted as the first obligation of journalism (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2001). The principle of truthfulness should not be equated with mere accuracy. Through relevant and complete accounts of the day’s intelligence, in addition to accurate and factual reporting, a truthful reflection of reality can be reached. Of course, news is not a mere mirror of reality; it provides a socially constructed version of reality and, in so doing, influences the public’s perception of reality. Because of the power of news in defining reality, the truthfulness criterion cannot ever be overlooked. As in social sciences, the pursuit of the truth should be a never-ending “sorting-out process that develops between the initial story and the interaction among the public, newsmakers, and journalists over time” (Kovach & Rosenstiel 2001, 42).
In conclusion, what is of major importance regarding news accountability is to control and improve the quality of news based upon the criteria discussed so far. Such quality news can bring the public various benefits: it can perform a systematic scrutiny of power; it can stimulate a participant democracy; and it can function as a public sphere where different ideas, beliefs, and views are discussed and, as a result, public opinion can be formulated. There might be various forms and means to accomplish news accountability, such as regular ombudsman programs, in-house critics, news watchdog groups, press councils, and journalist education as well as codes of ethics, legal regulations, and fair competition in the market. Among others, the role of the members of the public is most important to hold the news accountable to various expectations in a participant democracy.
- Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2001). The elements of journalism: What newspeople should know and the public should expect. New York: Three Rivers Press.
- 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.
- Sonnenberg, U. (1997). Regulation and self-regulation of the media. In U. Sonnenberg (ed.), Organising media accountability: Experiences in Europe. Maastricht: European Journalism Centre, pp. 17–22.