Holding the News Media Accountable: A Study of Media Reporters and Media Critics in the United States

By Fengler, Susanne | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Holding the News Media Accountable: A Study of Media Reporters and Media Critics in the United States


Fengler, Susanne, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The last decade has witnessed a significant, albeit understudied, increase in media reporting and media criticism in the U.S. news media. An exploratory study of leading media reporters and media critics in the United States indicates that these journalists have considerable potential as instruments of media self-regulation. Their impact on other media professionals, however, is partially left unexploited, mainly because of the peer orientation of media critics and media reporters.

News media-newspapers, magazines, broadcast journalism, and websites with journalistic content-usually start worrying about ethics only in times of crisis, says French scholar of mass communication Claude-Jean Bertrand.1 In fact, codes of ethics, ombudsmen, press councils, and journalism reviews have been created during times of great social disaffection and "increasingly angry disillusionment" among the public about the news media, when people have "a growing sense of being baffled and misled," as Walter Lippmann once put it.2 For example, the first code of ethics for journalists was created in 1923, shortly after World War I, following criticism about the influence of political propaganda and the advertising industry on news media content.3

Ombudsmen, press councils, and local journalism reviews, meanwhile, flourished in the United States during the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s.4 They all can be called instruments of media self-regulation because ombudsmen and authors of journalism reviews and of codes of ethics, as well as members of press councils, are generally media professionals who engage in monitoring, investigating, and analyzing developments in journalism and in the media business. As such, they expose mistakes, point toward potentially harmful developments, and encourage attention to ethics among journalists.

Bertrand describes press councils, codes of ethics, journalism reviews, ombudsmen, and some nongovernmental institutions concerned with media issues as "media accountability systems," defined as "any non-State means of making media responsible towards the public. " Since the State should not participate in monitoring the news media, "except by delivering the threats that media often need to start the process of selfregulation," Bertrand urges media owners, media professionals, and media consumers to hold the news media accountable.5

But then, because media consumers often prove too "apathetic or unorganized,"6 Bertrand emphasizes the importance of self-regulation by media owners and media professionals, who are asked not only to hold politics, business, and other systems of society accountable, but also to inquire if media professionals fulfill their primary responsibility, which is "to provide a good public service."7 The goal of media accountability systems is thus to "improve the services of the media to the public; restore the prestige of media in the eyes of the population; diversely protect freedom of speech and press; obtain, for the profession, the autonomy that it needs to play its part in the expansion of democracy and the betterment of the fate of mankind."8 To reinforce media accountability by means of media self-regulation, media professionals are limited to "moral pressure." "But their action can be reinforced by the authority of media executives or persisting legal obligations," adds Bertrand.9

In addition to the "systems" mentioned before, Bertrand includes "media reporting" and "media criticism" in his list of media accountability systems. he emphasizes that specialized journalists should monitor the news media and write critically about them for a mass audience. Since the news media "have become one of the nervous systems in the social body, the public needs to be informed about them. Some journalists must specialize in that field so as to cover its news well and investigate uncompromisingly." But Bertrand says: "With exceptions (usually due to ideological animus or business rivalry), media do not criticize each other: blind eyes are turned on the failings of colleagues. …

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