MediaAct – Striving for media pluralism in the digital age

According to the democratic ideal, fair and open media should exist in society without political intervention. But sometimes self-regulation of the media is no more desirable than governmental control. According to the MediaAct research project, the ‘gold standard’ in Europe should be ‘regulated self-regulation’, whereby the media industry is expected to self-regulate but that governmental actors (at the national and European level) should be allowed to intervene if standards drop. Finding a way to combine the business and journalistic aspects of mass media will be key, say the researchers.

What is media pluralism? A pluralistic media is one that it is composed of a wide variety of independent news outlets, has different owners and managers, is independent of political bias and is free to reflect different viewpoints in society. By ensuring these fundamental principles of transparency, diversity and freedom of expression, a pluralistic media is one of the cornerstones of modern democracy.

What is media accountability? As the main way that essential information reaches the public, the concept of media accountability reflects the belief that to fulfil its place in a democratic society, the media should serve public interest by behaving in ways that contribute to the public good.

How are pluralism and accountability linked? Some degree of regulation of the media is necessary to ensure that pluralism and accountability co-exist. Some countries have far tighter state control of media activities than others, leading to poor pluralism and freedom of expression. Others, such as the UK, have a more liberal system of media self-regulation, which has resulted in an oligarchic structure of media ownership driven primarily by commercial motivations. The methods by which a country regulates its media are therefore a useful indicator of how pluralistic the media are and, thus, of the quality of the public sphere

The MediaAct project was set up in 2010 to investigate the methods used by 14 countries across Europe and the Arab world to regulate their media (Austria, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United Kingdom). The overarching aim of the project is to suggest what kind of legal framework could be considered the ‘gold standard’ for regulating the activities of the media, while still protecting media pluralism.

Through a recent survey with over 2000 journalists, the researchers have come to a number of conclusions:

  • Media regulation varies significantly across Europe and the Arab world, depending on economic, cultural, historical and technological differences.
  • Figure 1 (below) shows how different means of regulation can originate from within the media industry, in the form of press councils and ethical codes of conduct, or via the consumer, in the form of media criticism in social networks, citizen blogs and online comments.
  • Germany and the UK have the biggest media markets and show the largest variety of mechanisms.
  • Only seven of the 14 countries involved in the study have press councils. These tend to be the countries with the most ‘liberal’ journalistic cultures, including the UK, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland and Germany.
  • The internet cannot be regulated by media professionals and government intervention alone, and, as such, has dramatically altered the media landscape, allowing citizens to voice their opinions if they find stories biased or unethical.
  • In France and Italy, where media criticism is largely absent from mainstream media, journalists are using online blogs to criticise media quality.
  • In Eastern Europe, where media practitioners tend to view media self-regulation with suspicion, there is a trend towards satirical TV programmes to draw attention to unpopular issues.
  • In general, how far news organisations are open to media accountability appears to depend on the motivations of editors and media owners more than individual journalists.
  • Across all 14 countries studied, around 70% of journalists said the economic pressure on editors and media owners to make money in a time of recession, i.e. through advertising revenue and the need to sell newspapers, damages journalistic quality and independence more than any other factor, including political pressure.

 

Figure 1 - Typology of media accountability instruments


Source: MediaAct 2011

 

Policy recommendations: A ‘gold standard for governance’

Since neither direct state intervention nor absolute self-regulation are desirable for an independent media, the MediaAct researchers suggest a solution of ‘regulated self-regulation’, whereby the media industry is expected to participate in self-regulation mechanisms but that a legal framework should exist at the European level to monitor quality standards and intervene when they are deemed to be broken. However, in the interests of plurality and due to differences in the journalistic culture across Member States, European legislation should not intervene in the specifics of self-regulation, i.e. it should not say exactly what a code of ethics should contain.

A successful system of regulated self-regulation needs to consider not only the ethics of individual journalists but also ways to incentivise media managers and owners to find solutions that combine economic and journalistic motivations, perhaps through economic bonuses and sanctions imposed at the European level.

Practical outcomes: What’s next for MediaAct?

The end goal of the project is to develop a ‘Media Accountability Index’ to allow policy makers to see how well a given EU Member State is performing in terms of media pluralism and accountability, relative to other countries. The index, which will be presented to policy makers in late 2013, will be accompanied by country-specific recommendations for what needs to be done to put each Member State on the road to regulated self-regulation.

The recommendations will extend beyond policy makers, however, by means of a ‘best practice’ handbook for media professionals containing guidelines and suggestions for how to balance economic and journalistic motivations. Online platforms to offer training in media ethics to journalism students across Europe, and to raise awareness among citizens about the status of media plurality in their own country, are also planned for development before the project comes to a close in July 2013.

MediaAct – Media accountability and transparency in Europe (duration: 1/2/2010 – 31/7/2013). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5, “The citizen in the European Union”, Research area 5.1 “Participation and citizenship in Europe”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.mediaact.eu

Contact: Prof. Dr. Susanne Fengler, Susanne.fengler@udo.edu