Media Accountability Practices on the Internet

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Only a few days after the presentation of the anthology “Mapping Media Accountability — in Europe and Beyond“, a second set of country reports from the comparative research project “Media Accountability and Transparency in Europe” (MediaAcT) is available online. The working paper series “Media Accountability Practices on the Internet“, coordinated by David Domingo and Heikki Heikkilä, explores the opportunities and challenges of web-based instruments of media observation all around the globe. The working papers are the product of over 80 in-depth interviews with experts, media professionals and activists, and will form the empirical basis of an international comparison of the role of digital technologies in media accountability. The series includes reports from European countries (Bulgaria, France, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Serbia, the United Kingdom), Arab countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia) and the USA. All papers are available for download on the MediaAcT website.

My own contribution, originating from a collaboration with Huub Evers, focuses on web-based accountability processes in German journalism. Our summary:

While trust in German journalism is being challenged by recurrent journalistic misbehavior, the necessity of a functioning media accountability landscape is more pressing than ever. In fact, the German media system offers a notable variety of self-regulatory instruments that aim at safeguarding the quality of journalistic reporting. Their effects, however, seem to be limited: The German Press Council is taunted as a “toothless tiger” because of its lack of sanctioning power; media journalism has to cope with its inevitable problems of self-referentiality; and accountability mechanisms on the level of the newsroom are only slowly gaining ground.

This report discusses the potentials and pitfalls of web-based accountability processes in German journalism. Can they complement traditional instruments of journalistic self-regulation and compensate their deficiencies? Can they accomplish a better involvement of civil society actors in the debate about journalistic quality? As an analysis of the current data on Internet usage in Germany shows, the conditions are quite favorable: The Internet has a rising significance in people’s everyday life; however, the disposition to actively participate in the production of online contents is still low in most parts of the society – just as the willingness of many newsrooms to support user integration.

Qualitative expert interviews, which were conducted for this report, demonstrate that a considerable diversity of online practices fostering media accountability in Germany has been developing in recent years. Different case studies substantiate the assumption that the multitude of new voices, which is characteristic for the novel kind of media criticism in the Social Web, may well have a positive impact on practical journalism. At the same time, it becomes clear that recent innovations in media accountability are far from being a panacea for the deficits of traditional journalistic self-regulation. Particularly, the editorial handling of journalistic mistakes still leaves much room for improvements. The case of user comments on online news stories shows that web-based accountability processes may even lead to new ethical problems which have not been tackled systematically so far.

More details can be found in the PDF version of the report. The complete bibliographical data:

Huub Evers/Tobias Eberwein (2011): Can a million toothless tigers make a difference? Potentials and pitfalls of web-based accountability processes in German journalism. MediaAcT working paper 4/2011. Journalism Research and Development Centre, University of Tampere. URL: http://www.mediaact.eu/online.html

Photo: Vortexx/photocase.com

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