Key terms of Media Accountability and Transparency

This glossary provides the most important key terms in the field of Media Accountability and Transparency.


Annual report

A document which describes the activities of the media outlet with a financial report as well as a summary of editorial achievements and considerations.


Behavioral Economics

Behavioral Economics analyzes how social, cognitive and emotional factors affect the economic and everyday decision making of individuals and institutions. Contrary to the traditional “Homo economicus” model of rational choice theory, behavioral economists assume “bounded rationality” of human beings (Herbert A. Simon, 1957) and try to find out under which conditions we behave “predictably irrational” (Dan Ariely, 2008), integrating insights from psychology and social psychology into economic theory.



Refers to acts by which journalists, media organizations or others are threatened or even killed for communicating certain content in form of an article, a picture, a drawing, a film, a book etc. In authoritarian countries content that might challenge the regime is often subject to censorship. But censorship does also exist for other reasons, e.g. national security. Censorship of journalism may occur at different times of the publication process: when it occurs prior to publication the content will be held back by censor institutions before it is even published. When it occurs after publication certain parts of a publication may be blackened, selling or broadcasting can be stopped etc. Authoritarian regimes often have special institutions for censorship.

Citizen journalism

Citizen journalism means journalism done by people outside mainstream media organizations. The work of citizen journalism often aims at offering alternative political and/or cultural views to mainstream media organizations (e.g. giving a voice to ordinary citizens instead of authorities).

Code of Ethics

Set of guidelines for editorial practice, drafted either by the staff itself or by unions or the Press Council. Often, a reference to national or international codes of conduct are being published.

Column/letter of the chief editor

Weekly contribution of the chief editor to explain elements of editorial policy or to discuss controversial topics in journalism.

Conflict of interest

A journalist is in a conflict of interest when, due to the position occupied, he or she makes a decision or participates in taking a decision related to a personal interest or an editorial interest. The conflict appears when the personal or editorial interest of the journalist influences the fulfillment of the professional attributions of objectivity and impartiality.

Copyright/Fair use

Copyright covers the prerogatives authors enjoy, allowing them to control the usage of their intellectual work. The expression of all journalistic materials is protected by copyright. No transformation of a work is allowed without the consent of its author. Fair use refers to the correct quoting and the correct usage of information and opinion generated by other authors, with appropriate attribution.

Correction box

Separate section in a newspaper or magazine where regularly (once or twice a week) errors are being corrected and omissions added.


Media outlets use corrections to remedy the errors (e.g. factual mistakes) in their reporting. Corrections can be published after internal checks or as a result of user complaints. Published corrections are normally separated from other journalistic material by way of layout. In some countries, the obligation for making corrections is laid out explicitly in the ethical codes for journalists.


Editorial statute

Declaration of the way editorial processes are organized (e.g. how chief editors are appointed and the editorial board is elected). Key element is a strict separation of editorial and commercial interests and guarantees for editorial independence.

Editors/Journalists/newsroom blog

A platform that gives insights to production processes, shows decision making and reflects on journalism in general.



Feedback is a way of monitoring and improving journalistic performance and quality. It can take many forms: external (reader complaint), internal (in-house newsroom meeting), formal (press council verdict on complaint) or informal (collegial conversation about ethical standards). Traditionally, journalists tend to value internal feedback more highly than the one coming from users or audiences.

Field theory

According to Benson (1994), the concept of field describes a (relatively) autonomous and structured social space, where agents evolve and fight over the legitimate definition of their activity (be it art, science or journalism) according to their resources (different forms of capital). In addition, the journalistic field has to be understood as part of the larger field of cultural production (at its largest-scale production pole) which is itself part of the field of power.

Freedom of expression

Free public expression of thoughts, opinions, faith, creations of any type by speech, written word, through sounds or through any other means of communication. In journalism, the object of the freedom of expression is represented by the correct information, in the public interest as well as by opinions and comments made in good faith. The freedom of expression is protected by forbidding censorship (the act of impeding a communication before it is made public). The freedom of expression is limited by the respect of dignity, private life and image of the person, by forbidding discrimination, incitement to violence, by the protection of the young and of the ill, by measures designed to ensure a healthy public sphere (such as an equilibrated political debate).

Freedom of information

The right to have access to any information of public interest and to receive correct information from all means of mass communication regarding public aspects and any other type of information and opinions considered of interest, together with the right to participate in any type of cultural manifestations.

The freedom of information comprises the freedom of the journalist to select only the information of public interest and to filter the essential aspects of the information transmitted for their public. The freedom of information is limited by means designed to protect national security, order and public morality, and the right to private, family and intimate life.


Hate speech

The speech attacking a person or a group of people on the grounds of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, as a form of discrimination. The journalist has the duty not to discriminate and instigate to hate and violence. Individual characteristics, such as race or nationality, may be mentioned only in the cases in which the information is relevant for the subject in discussion.

Herd Behavior

Not only in financial markets, but also in everyday life decision makers tend to follow the crowd instead of evaluating rationally and individually their options. Herd behavior (also: swarm behavior) describes the phenomenon how individuals in a group act together without planned direction. The term pertains to the behavior of animals as well as human beings (e.g. investment decisions, demonstrations & riots, sporting events, religious gatherings, collective suicide). Though recently “swarm intelligence” and the “wisdom of the crowds” (James Surowiecki, 2004) has been discussed intensely, there should be also seen the dangers of becoming “victims of groupthink” (Irving Janis, 1972 ) and of collective errors and irresponsibilty.


Internal critique session

An internal, regular critique session where journalists reflect their work, also possible together with an external media expert resp. practitioner.


Journalism cultures

Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini (2004) point out how national political and economic structures shape the emergence and status quo of journalism and the media. Furthermore they argue that similar trends shaping the media and journalism can be identified in specific journalism cultures crossing national borders, and accordingly develop country clusters characterized by a number of remarkable similarities: The liberal model (e.g. Great Britain, United States) is characterized by highly deregulated media markets, little state interference in the media sector, and a highly developed culture of professionalism among journalists (Hallin and Mancini 2004: 198). The democratic corporatist model (e.g. Scandinavian countries, Germany, Austria) is also associated with high professionalism among journalists, but differs from the liberal model with regard to the influential role that public broadcasting plays in those countries (Hallin and Mancini 2004: 143). Distinctive features of the polarized pluralist model (e.g. Italy, Spain, France) are the high influence of political actors on both private and public news organizations, a weak professional culture among journalists, and the somewhat marginal role of the print media (Hallin and Mancini 2004: 89) (see Fengler et al. 2013).

Journalistic field

A field might be understood as a space in which journalism is analyzed as a structured environment where hierarchies exist, where some actors are more legitimate than others (and thus can impose their views about what is the legitimate professional model: what journalism is or should be about), and where struggles are at the heart of the history of the field (over the legitimate professional model: commercial vs. professional or intellectual model for example).



Legitimacy denotes an explicit or implicit consent given by citizens to the government. Legitimacy may also refer to non-state institutions, such as the media, and even more broadly to social practices, such as public communication. In politics, legitimacy is measured in elections and polls. With regard to social and cultural practices the level of legitimacy is more difficult to gauge empirically.

Letters to the editors

Letters to the editors are a self-regulation instrument that has allowed for almost a couple of centuries the participation of the public. Generally, the letters address current issues but they also refer to other lectors’ opinion or content published by the media.


Media Accountability

Denis McQuail (2005: 207) defines media accountability as “voluntary or involuntary processes by which the media answer directly or indirectly to their society for the quality and/or consequences of publication.”

Media Accountability Instruments

Media Accountability Instruments (MAIs) are defined as “any non-State means of making media responsible towards the public” by Claude-Jean Betrand (2000: 18). Following Russ-Mohl (2003) and Fengler (2008) MAIs can be classified as established instruments of media accountability (e.g. press councils, ombudsmen; media journalism in trade journals, letters to the editor etc.) and innovative instruments of media accountability (e.g. editorial weblogs, online ombudsmen, media criticism on Twitter and Facebook etc.) (see Eberwein et al 2011: 9).


News management

The news management is the work through which actors external to the journalistic field try to influence the news production in order to obtain (good) coverage. There are different levels of news management. Scholars general divide two types of news management. The first one is the range of practices – generally referred to the activities of public relations – linked and intertwined explicitly and in a transparent way to the everyday journalists’ work. The second one is the range of subtle, sometimes hidden, kinds of pressure that political and economic actors put on news organizations.

News production

The news production is the process of gathering, selecting, composing and presenting news. Newsrooms and journalists transform what has happened in usable pieces of information. The production of news deals with the professional and personal journalists’ choices, the constraints of the organization and the overall media system structure.



Senior editor or lawyer or media expert (from outside the newsroom) who operates as an intermediate between audience and editorial staff. He or she deals with questions and complaints of the public and functions as an in house critic of the newsroom. His independence is adhered in a contract or statute. The terms ombudsman, readers’ representative or public editor are more or less identical. The ombudsman is an instrument of self-regulation on the professional level created by the media companies. This tool allows the users of a medium to complain or to speak out about the medium's editorial line, or on any other aspect of the product offered. The concept of the ombudsman shows that many conflicts can be resolved through mediation without going to court. When the ombudsman is integrated into the newsroom, he can promote self-criticism and improve journalism work (Restrepo, 2005). But the ombudsman cannot be too "friendly" with his journalists colleagues because readers would question immediately their effectiveness in defending their interests. Hence, sometimes the ombudsman role is not well accepted by their colleagues (Macia, 2006).

Ownership structure

News media organizations usually operate within the market. That means that though they produce a very particular kind of goods (the news), they must follow the rules of economy. Therefore, to pursue their aims (providing and producing news), the media organizations need an ownership structure. Within the media systems three major forms of proprietorship can be recognized: a sole proprietorship (a family or an individual proprietor who owns the media), a corporation (a legal entity where privileges and rights go beyond an individual), the public service (people’s taxes pay for the media organization).


Press council

Press councils are collegiate bodies that oversee self-regulatory compliance with the ethical principles of journalism. The codes of ethics are generally their ethical reference. In The Media Self Regulation Guidebook William Gore (2008) states that a press council is essentially good for building trust and credibility in the media, improving quality levels in the media, preventing interference from the state and the authorities, and reducing the number of court cases against journalists.

Political and market pressure

News are a special kind of product. It is special because, though it is produced within the market, it can at the same time influence the market itself. I.e.: if a newspaper makes a negative review of a product, the latter may decrease its sales. Nonetheless, news are even a more special product, because they can influence as well the political system. That is why both economic and political actors try to influence the news media to obtain the most favorable coverage. This kind of pressures is generally referred to as news management.

Political and market affiliation

A well-functioning democracy (as well as economical system) requires a well-functioning media system. The news provided by the media must be regarded as crucial for the work of political and economic fields. That is why political and economic actors enter the field with diverse levels of involvement to control and influence the news. The economic support they give to some news organization determine their affiliation. News organizations must be considered affiliated to some political and economic actors when their aims coincide.

Private life

Any aspect related to intimate life, personal life or family life, living place, residence, mail, manuscripts or personal documents of a private person. The concept may be extended to the dignity of the private person (honor and reputation) and the image of the private person (physical aspect and voice). The journalist is forbidden any involvement in the private life of a person without permission, if the information is not highly relevant and in the public interest. The dissemination of this kind of information could only be justified by the existence of a significant and clear connection between the private life of the person and a justified public interest.

Process transparency

Journalists can be transparent by sharing thoughts and decisions during the journalistic process

Protecting the sources

The obligation of the journalist to maintain the confidentiality of the sources, if requested and if the reveal of sources’ identity can endanger their life, physical and psychological integrity or working place. The protection of the confidentiality of the sources is in equal measure a right but also an obligation for the journalist.

Public critique session

Where the editorial team or a part of it discusses the product or certain issues with its audience (be it offline or online).


Quality journalism

This kind of journalism, even if it’s very hard to define, usually refers, depending on each countries’ journalistic values, to the practice of making news out of verified (usually political or international) information. This model would be the opposite model of tabloid journalism, meaning that quality journalism refers to serious, deep analysis or description of the events. According to different journalistic fields, quality journalism might refer either to war reporting, political reporting, economic or social analysis. The New York Times, Le Monde or The Guardian would be prototypical examples.


Rational Ignorance

Economists speak of rational ignorance when the cost of informing oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide. This has consequences for the quality of decisions made by large numbers of people, particulary voters in democracies. In general elections the probability of any one voter changing the outcome is very small. Thus, it may not be “worthwhile” for citizens to keep themselves informed and to participate in elections. The term was coined by the U.S. economist Anthony Downs (1957) and has since then been widely used also in fields outside of politics.


One of the major findings of behavioral economists: Instead of making rational, self-interested choices, most human beings behave in a reciprocal way: If they are treated nice and fair, they will treat their counterparts nice and fair. If their counterpart is cheating, they might cheat themselves and try to punish the counterpart – “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”. Tit for tat is another expression for such behavior, aiming at "equivalent retaliation”. It is also a highly effective strategy in game theory (Anatol Rapoport). In iterative games, an actor might first cooperate, and then subsequently replicate an opponent's previous behavior. If the opponent previously was cooperative, the agent is cooperative. If not, the agent is not.


Responsiveness is a form of being accountable, whereby a given institution listens to the feedback and engages in interaction with person(s) initiating the feedback. A response may pertain to an apology of error or an explanation of the way of conduct. Responsiveness portends a process of learning from the feedback.



Any individual or group who has a vested interest in the outcome of a journalistic work (e.g. other journalists, media owners, publishers, media users, media scholars, NGOs).


Self-censorship means practicing censorship on one’s own work (book, film, news etc.) out of fear of or sensibilities towards others, without direct pressure from any authority, party or institution. Self-censorship is not restricted to authoritarian regimes, but can be practiced by journalists in democracy and transitional countries alike. One recent example comes from Turkey: During the country-wide protests against Prime Minister Erdogan in June 2013, CNN Turk totally ignored the protests. Instead of reporting on the protests it broadcasted a documentary on penguins. After that, Erdogan’s critics used the penguin as a symbol against self-censorship of the Turkish media.

Sender transparency

Journalists can be transparent about themselves and their organizations by publishing mission statements, ethical codes, editorial responsibilities and personal backgrounds.

Source transparency

Journalists can be transparent about sources by attributing assertions to informants or by providing links to original documents and raw material.

Style book

A style book gives inputs on how to report on sensible topics like gender, race etc.


Tabloid journalism

This kind of journalism usually refers to an illegitimate journalistic practice based on making news out of celebrities’ private lives, rumors, scandals or extraordinary events. It is called tabloid journalism because most journals that publish extraordinary or unverified information are in tabloid format. The British The Sun or the German Bild are common examples.

Telling the truth

For the correct information of the public regarding an event of public interest, journalists have to verify information in a reasonable manner and have to refrain from intentionally distorting the facts. False information or information journalists strongly believe to be false is not to be published. In the information process, the newsroom has the obligation to separate journalistic products from advertisements and to clearly distinct between facts and opinion. Telling the truth is in strong connection with good faith. The respect of principles of impartiality and balance always implies the presentation of the main points of view in opposition.