Media Accountability Practices on the Internet

A comparative view

A Collection of Country Reports from Europe, North America and the Arab world

This set of country reports is part of the project Media Accountability and Transparency in Europe, funded by the European Union. The project analyzes the development and impact of established media accountability instruments (e.g. press councils, codes of ethics) as well as new media accountability instruments emerging on the Internet (e.g. media criticism in blogs). The focus of these reports is specifically on media accountability practices online, and the social, economic and professional contexts that may help explain the particularities of the developments in each country. Fourteen countries have been studied: Nine are in Europe, four in the Middle (Near) East and one in North America. A separate report will be published in the near future, comparing the results of the whole sample.

The findings presented in the country reports were collected between August 2010 and January 2011 through in-depth interviews with journalists, members of accountability institutions, academics and activists, and a collaborative online document which invited experts to contribute their knowledge. At the end of each report, there is a list of the experts interviewed. An aggregate of more than 80 experts participated in the project. The variety of interviewees aims to reflect the specific features of national media systems and journalism cultures, when possible. In some cases, such as the UK and France, the list of interviewees falls short in terms of quantity and representativity due to the limited resources allocated for the study in those countries.

Researchers in the MediaAcT project also gathered data about relevant contextual factors shaping conditions for media accountability practices in their respective countries. These include: surveys measuring media legitimacy, performance of existing media accountability institutions (press councils, ombudspersons), statistics on Internet usage cultures, and analyses of the development of online journalism. These factors set up the scenario in which media organizations and citizens engaged in media criticism develop the media accountability online practices that these reports have explored.

Practices initiated by news organizations have been structured into three categories, based on a model proposed in the context of the project by Harmen Groenhart and Huubs Evers. They propose distinguishing three phases in the media accountability process, with different practices at particular phases of news production: (1) actor transparency, before the act of publication (addressing norms and expectations of public communication), (2) production transparency, during the production (access, selection, presentation), and (3) responsiveness, after publication.

Actor transparency denotes a set of practices wherein contextual information about the persons and organizations involved in the news production is shared with users. Some background information may be given, for instance, about the individual journalists responsible for a piece of news (what sort of expertise do they have regarding the issue they are covering). At the organizational level, information may shed light on the affiliation, political or otherwise, of the media outlet, or the ownership structures of the given media organization.

Production transparency denotes practices wherein news organizations provide users with additional information of the items published in the online news service (links to sources of information etc.) and accounts describing or explaining professional judgment preceding the process of publication (for instance, newsroom blogs). In addition, production transparency refers to means with which media organizations render their news production processes accessible to outside actors i.e. encouraging them to provide texts, images and videos to be published alongside content produced by staff members. These practices are often labeled as collaborative news production or user-generated content (UGC).

Responsiveness denotes news organizations’ reactions to feedback from users. Feedback includes, for instance, notifications of errors in the news, tip-offs for potential topics to be covered and comments to news. Responsiveness also refers to how news organizations engage in dialogue with those asking them to explain, justify or apologize for their judgments.

External to news organizations, practices are much less structured, as in many cases they develop ad hoc, as a reaction to the news coverage of specific events. The country reports discuss these cases, the role of social media and other initiatives such as media bloggers, online media observatories and citizen journalism projects.

Overall, the country reports suggest that the Internet is still a territory of uncertain explorations in the area of media accountability, with a wide array of attitudes and practices in different countries. Moreover, the reports depict a situation in which variations within countries are even more relevant than those related to different cultural contexts: The same tools for media transparency or responsiveness are being used in very disparate ways by media organizations of different backgrounds (Net-native projects vs. online versions of print or broadcast media; “quality” vs. tabloid journalism), and by journalists of different generations. Market pressures and the professional journalistic culture interplay with these actors in several ways in each country, in some cases fostering accountability practices online, in others discouraging them.

Photos: Lutz Kampert

About MediaAcT

MediaAcT is a comparative research project on media accountability systems in EU member states as indicators for media pluralism in Europe.


Funded by the EC

Project funded under the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanties


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