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The accountability of the media is a normative notion that underlies the balance of freedom and social responsibility across media structure, performance, and product.
From the birth of the press, its freedom has been strongly connected with social expectations for the media to protect the public interest and to improve the quality of democracy. Fundamentally, it is a matter of balancing freedom and responsibility, and two measures have been used primarily for that purpose: the market and the law. Neither approach, however, has proven successful. The free market measures often fail to secure plurality in media ownership and diversity in media content. On the other hand, legal regulations, such as censorship and other repressive measures legislated to protect the public good, often infringe freedom itself.
Many alternatives to these two approaches have been suggested. The theory of ‘social responsibility’ emphasizes the importance of media freedom to scrutinize power and to provide accurate information. It suggests that the media’s obligations to society be fulfilled primarily by self-regulation, i.e., by the voluntary efforts of media owners and practitioners. Although the theory contributed to the notion of media responsibility, it was not successful in detailing exactly how to hold the free market media socially responsible.
The concept of media accountability is a much wider concept than self-regulation, denoting both the media’s legal obligation to prevent or reduce any negative consequences of its practices and its moral duty to provide quality service for the public. Accountability is also a process-oriented concept defining how the media answer, to whom, and for what.
There exist diverse ways of achieving media accountability, which include legal and legislative regulation, and involve the market, the civil society (or the public), and the media profession itself (McQuail 2003). To sum up: media accountability represents an effort to establish the rules by which the media perform socially expected functions in a democracy while preserving freedom and extending it to more people and incorporating more diverse voices.
- Bertrand, C.-J. (2005). Introduction: Media accountability. Pacific Journalism Review, 11(2), 5–16.
- McQuail, D. (2003). Media accountability and freedom of publication. Oxford: oxford university Press.
- Merritt, M. & McCombs, M. (2004). The two w’s of journalism: The why and what of public affairs reporting. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.