MediaAcT is a comparative research project on media accountability and transparency in EU member states as indicators for media pluralism in Europe. The project provides pioneer work in analyzing the development and impact of established media accountability systems (MAS) (e.g. press councils, codes of ethics) as well as new media accountability systems emerging in the Internet (e.g. media criticism in blogs, online ombudsmen) on journalists and media managers in the various journalism cultures and media systems in Europe. The interdisciplinary research consortium combines a variety of empirical methods to provide a sound analysis of the field of media accountability systems in Europe, which has attracted increasing attention by European media policy makers and media managers recently, but still badly lacks scientific evaluation.
It is of special interest to the research consortium how the quantity and quality of media accountability systems to be found in exemplary EU member states correlate with political, legislative, and economic conditions in the respective states. We strongly argue that in democracies, key stakeholders of the media (citizens and policy makers as well as journalists and media managers) all need to hold the news media accountable. Therefore, we seek to develop and disseminate incentives how to foster active participation in media accountability systems in the established and young democracies of Western and Eastern Europe and beyond, building on the scientific data to be generated in the course of this project. We argue that established and new media accountability systems online provide the best forums for pluralistic debates about editorial freedom and media independence, especially in times of growing media concentration in Europe which endangers media pluralism within the EU.
The quality of media accountability systems can serve as a key indicator for media pluralism in EU member states. With Claude-Jean Bertrand, we define media accountability systems as "any non-State means of making media responsible towards the public". Media accountability systems engage in monitoring, investigating, and analyzing developments in journalism and in the media business, especially important in times of growing media concentration. As media accountability systems we consider:
established instruments of MAS like press councils, codes of ethics, ombudsmen, media journalism in trade journals, media criticism in the mass media, letters to the editor etc.;
innovative instruments of MAS emerging in the digital age, like media blogs, citizens’ and journalists’ websites critically addressing media issues, online documentation of research, podcasts of internal critique sessions, online ombudsmen etc.
Media accountability systems are vehicles for public debates about the editorial freedom of journalism and the independence of the media in democratic states. As such, they can be considered as prerequisites for pluralistic media in a democracy: MAS inform citizens about processes of selecting and framing news and may thus help citizens to make an informed choice regarding their own media use.
Despite this potential of MAS as a key factor for media pluralism, no systematic empirical study on MAS in a comparative European context has been conducted so far. Too often, media practitioners, policy makers, and media scholars address the issue of MAS only from a normative perspective. Only very few small-scale and out-dated research projects have at least partly tackled the impact of – established – MAS. Also, only few studies focus on media bloggers or other online MAS instruments. Moreover, research often centres on journalists and media managers. There is no representative empirical study so far which analyzes the impact of MAS on key stakeholders, especially with regard to new forms of MAS in the Internet and in blogs.
Consequently, key research interests of MediaAcT are:
Which established forms of MAS can be found in selected Eastern and Western European member states and beyond, and which new forms of MAS in the Internet have emerged?
Which impact do these – established and new – MAS have on media professionals?
What are best practice cases for MAS from selected EU member states, and (how) can they be transferred to other journalism cultures and media systems in Europe and beyond?
Which incentives may encourage all key stakeholders of the media to participate in MAS, in order to strengthen media pluralism in EU member states and beyond?
How can MAS substitute political intervention to preserve media pluralism?
In order to answer these questions, MediaAcT is constituted as an innovative, interdisciplinary and comparative research project on MAS in Europe. The project seeks to fill the demand for solid empirical data on the impact of MAS in various journalistic cultures and media systems in Eastern and Western Europe and beyond. This knowledge in turn will help key stakeholders of the media (citizens, policy makers, media professionals) to judge the quality of MAS in EU member states, to develop incentives for media practitioners in Europe to engage in MAS, and to foster European networks for MAS. The composition of the MediaAcT research consortium guarantees an interdisciplinary as well as an innovative approach to the analysis of MAS as indicators for media pluralism in democracies.
The key result of the project will be policy recommendations for EU policy makers concerned with media pluralism in a democracy as well as other key stakeholders associated with media accountability (journalists, media managers, media scholars, bloggers, citizens). To provide problem-oriented expertise for the European Commission, the research process will culminate in a MAS index to support EU policy makers in their strategic decision-making on media policy: Member states found to have a high quality of MAS may not require further political interference, since it can be assumed that the national media accountability systems already ensure an ongoing debate about media pluralism. On the other hand, media markets with a low quality of MAS should be closely monitored by stakeholders concerned with media pluralism, because this implies that stakeholders in such media markets fail to sustain a dialogue about the quality of news, or that media organizations abuse their market power to mute such a critical debate and possibly engage in cross-promotion instead.
The European Commission may also use incentives – which are to be developed in the course of this project – to promote MAS activities in such media markets as a subsidiary to regulatory action, and ultimately decide to intervene politically. Creating awareness for media accountability systems – especially the promising new MAS tools emerging online – among EU policy makers and relevant stakeholders alike is paramount for the project. Thus, intense efforts will be invested in the dissemination of the research results to political and academic spheres, to the mass media, and among social networks in the Internet. In this phase, the project will profit from the extensive practical experience in political communication provided by the project coordinator and other members of the research consortium.