How media accountability is about self-reflection and a critical inward look
“The more you do the right thing, the harder it is to do the wrong thing” — Maria Ressa (Rappler, The Philippines)
Media as drivers for change
When I was asked to participate in a webinar about media accountability for journalism students in Delhi, I had no second thoughts. We should grab every opportunity to discuss the ethics of our beautiful profession with both hands. In my research for this lecture I came across the principle of self-regulation as a tool for media accountability, clearly explained in a paper by Ognian Zlatev for UNESCO:
“Self-regulation is vital for media precisely because the media are regarded as a democracy
Watchdog. If an individual or an organization has the mission to protect other people’s values and national achievements, this imposes great moral obligations. Those obligations should be subject to self-regulation, not imposed by any state, and not to any other kind of order or control because no matter what political regime is in power, the world’s laws are based on free will and the daily choices we make.
Self-regulation is also important for the media as it has the power to generate change: of mentality, behaviour, policy, life. If the media want to be a driver of change, they should be responsible enough to change and develop constantly.”
So there lies a huge responsibility with the media to look critically at themselves and be drivers of change. There are many examples of how the media nowadays are definitely enablers for transformation, but not always in a moral and just way. And in our content-saturated society, everyone can call themselves ‘media’ which makes it needed more than ever to prove reliability. Media accountability is necessary and important if there is to trust in the media.
The question I asked myself is if the media accountability tools we have are still effective enough to ensure a healthy future for journalism? Examples of such tools would be press councils, (in-house) ombudsman, a possibility for registering complaints on the website, media critics from outside the profession.
Media accountability on television
When I grew up in The Netherlands there used to be a television program about journalism with the title ‘De Leugen Regeert’, which translates as ‘Falsehood reigns’. Our former queen Beatrix used that quote to describe the condition of the media in our country back in 1999. And it was exactly what the program was about: discussing the state of the media. Practical cases of misleading reporting or objections from protagonists in certain stories were being debated in the weekly broadcast. I often think about this show because it gave a revealing insight into how the media works if you weren’t a journalist yourself. My latest job in The Netherlands was at public broadcaster Human who produces the television program ‘Medialogica’, translated as ‘Media logics’. Investigative journalists dive into media hypes and construct the sometimes relentless, unwarranted media attention by interviewing the journalists and interested parties involved. Medialogica is a popular part of the curriculum at Dutch journalism schools, to educate the students about the workings and ethics of media.
It is obviously important that journalism students discuss those topics extensively, but when preparing this lecture I realized how often after graduation journalists keep those debates to themselves, within the industry. That’s why I thought of the examples mentioned above because it’s so important to engage the public in the topic of media accountability. We as journalists discuss each other’s publications on Twitter, share, like and criticize but that’s not (always) where our audience spends the same amount of time as we do.
When I was still working in The Netherlands it became clear that the foundations of Western media are shaking. Australian internet activist Julian Assange showed us with Wikileaks that regular media missed out on information about important global topics. Whether you think Wikileaks is a journalistic enterprise or not, it definitely has shaken the journalism profession. Eliot Higgins’ Bellingcat likewise shows the profession that new types of investigative techniques are needed to do proper research to be able to continue the role of watchdog. To me, the documentaries of BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis show that the role of media in global political events is often trivial and when the self-reflection about that role isn’t shared publicly, it shouldn’t be surprising that the trust in media decreases.
Self-regulation in that sense goes hand in hand with an inward gaze and self-reflection. And that brings me to a wider perspective on this topic.
Problems rooted in the Global North
When you study journalism in The Netherlands and you find a job in the media, all the opportunities for developing your skills and knowledge are very much focused on other countries in Europe or the United States. There’s hardly any serious interest in what is happening in Asia or other parts of the world outside the Global North.
It’s one of the reasons that I left my home country two years ago for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical. I wanted to take a year off for a long time already and now was the perfect moment. As Head of Media of Draper Startup House, I got the opportunity to travel around South East Asia in 2019 to visit the different locations of the startup, also here in India, in Bangalore. At the same time, I used the opportunity to connect to journalists and newsrooms in the countries I travelled to. And so after one year of going from Singapore to Myanmar, to Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, India and Malaysia, visiting and speaking at different media conferences, I got a first impression of the media ecosystem in this part of the world.
One of the main things I’ve learned from my travels is that much of the challenges the media face globally right now, also around the topic of accountability, can be traced back to the influence of the West on the rest of the world. The Eurocentric and Western-centric approach by media to global affairs, the rise of the Silicon Valley tech companies and the culture of whiteness rooted in colonialism, an important part of the history of which the influence on our profession isn’t much talked about yet. The latter comes with a superiority attitude of which parachuting reporters into countries is a normal thing, instead of building long term collaborations with local reporters on the ground. Not to mention the number of blind spots about other cultures than the Western, even within national borders.
The embracement of digital technologies and innovations leading to the huge power of Google and Facebook in our world today, leave us with questions about media ethics and moral actions in the content space. Even though the Googles and Facebooks of this world don’t like to be called media companies, they still handle most of the content going around.
A platform like Facebook has an immense influence on how the media works without having taken serious accountability in the past for wrongdoing. Philippino-American journalist Maria Resa, founder of Rappler in The Philippines warned Mark Zuckerberg long before the Cambridge Analytica scandal that caused a stir in The Global North, that his platform was triggering serious harm to democracy in her country. The same happened in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Facebook was the main communication channel for the hatred towards minorities without Zuckerberg and his colleagues acting strongly to prevent escalation.
Solutions from the Global South
Hearing stories from media professionals in the Global South about these issues proves to me that the solutions to the problems Western media find themselves in should come from the Global South. One could say we need out of the box thinking, but it’s actually more about finally realizing that the box is much bigger than we acknowledged up until now. And there are many unheard voices in the global media box that deserve attention.
When talking about media accountability in 2020 we can’t afford anymore to look at all the different countries individually. A global approach to more responsibility is needed.
Another example in that regard is the COVID-19 crisis we’re in at the moment and the Black Lives Matter protests that spread around the world earlier this year. The anti-racism protests fueled the debate about media diversity again. Especially in The West where the discussion is being held for over three decades with the same arguments and newsrooms are still merely ‘white’. COVID-19 in its turn put most of the already identified problems in the media in a pressure cooker, inclusion as one of them. It brings to the surface what might otherwise have lain hidden for another few decades. New solutions arise, focusing on the roots of the problem in the colonial past. Decolonizing newsrooms will most probably become much more talked about in the common years.
Inclusive journalism with a holistic approach
The good news of all this is we don’t need to invent the wheel all over again. It just requires us to dust off the foundation of journalism and apply ethics like never before.
I call it inclusive journalism, where we not only focus on creating racial equity in our occupation but also redefine the concept of objectivity. Former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery wrote in the New York Times that objectivity in journalism is ‘constructed atop a pyramid of subjective decision making, almost exclusively denied by white reporters and their mostly white bosses’.
Inclusive journalism connects the different challenges altogether, one of the characteristics therefore is the holistic approach to journalism. The mental wellbeing issues in the media cannot be separated from the lack of self-reflection and blind spots towards inclusion. Other parts of this approach involve a long term commitment and strategy to change, becoming conscious of unconscious bias, a genuine community engagement, enlighten the audience and not just inform and decolonize the newsroom together with educating ourselves about colonial history. Everything is connected: if the newsroom isn’t inclusive, the reporting can’t be truly objective and the audience will lose trust in the media. And if that happens the journalist will ask her or himself why am I doing this job and get burned out.
We like to point out to politicians like Trump who created a hostile work environment for journalists in the United States and far beyond, shouting fake news to each and every individual journalist and media outlet. And neoliberal leaders like him definitely are a danger for press freedom. But as long as those leaders get elected democratically, we need to focus on what we CAN change instead of what we CAN’T.
Four years ago the shock was huge that Donald Trump became president. It showed how little the press in the US understood the problems of the people voting for this man. And even though that situation is now more complex, the role of the journalists should still be to connect closely to their audience and not be surprised by an outcome of a presidential election.
Yes, there are authoritarian leaders around and the main goal of journalism still is to report critically on our democracies. And that isn’t easy. Especially in India at the moment from what I read and hear that has become very tough. Stations get cut off by orders of governments, there are regions in the world where sudden power cuts in bigger areas prevent reporters from doing their work well. Journalists get locked up or even killed. These are circumstances that ask for global pressure from influential human rights and press freedom institutions.
Mass media as propaganda
But parallel to that core task should be the constant development of media accountability with a critical inward-looking gaze to our own work.
The famous book by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, shows clearly how the influence of our capitalistic system created a profit over the people mass media ecosystem where journalism becomes propaganda under the pressure of self-censorship. I’d recommend journalism students to read that book. Even though a lot is about the US. Because once you educate yourself about the dynamics of Western media, profit-focused, you’ll start to understand that the downsides of that ecosystem also impact the rest of the world. And from there you’ll find hopeful new initiatives that break with the mass media dynamics.
And lots of those innovations happen in regions outside of the Global North, like South East Asia. The Radio Asia 2019 conference organised by the Asian Pacific Broadcasting Union and hosted by the national broadcaster Bangladesh Betar in Dhaka last year showed for example how radio is literally a lifeline and a huge tool for empowerment in big parts of the world. My observations during that conference were of the Global North finding solutions to the decreasing popularity of radio in producing more entertaining, lighthearted and humorous content, increasing commercial collaborations as compensation for a loss of earnings and creating a strong podcast strategy to serve the mobile audience on demand. And speakers from South Asia emphasised the importance of community radio, focusing on social issues, empowering minorities and political impact. I left the conference thinking there is so much to learn from that approach, instead of focusing mainly on digital technology innovations. In order to establish a safe future for the medium and with that for journalism in general, it’s necessary to look at the roots of radio.
Grassroots journalism for community engagement
And what about the examples of Grassroots journalism in India, built upon strong engagement with audiences, focusing not just on reporting but on media literacy at the same time and adapting an entrepreneurial approach where transparency about failures is normal and collaboration with disciplines outside of media is crucial.
The small team of startup 101 reporters is one of those examples I visited in Bangalore that give mainstream exposure to grassroots journalists and help them tell untold stories. By doing that they increase the quality of journalism all over the country because they invest in educating the involved reporters as well.
Khabar Lahariya is another grassroots, feminist and independent journalism platform led by an all-women team in the North of India. The way the founders created the success of Khabar Lahariya is a business case where Western media can eat their heart out.
And PLUC TV, the mobile journalism media platform that has different reporters, recently rewarded with South Asia Digital Media Awards 2020. A young generation of so-called creators of the platform reaches and engage with their audience through social media, especially Instagram.
Media accountability on Instagram
And back to the topic of media accountability, Instagram can also be an excellent platform to discuss the topics of responsibility. The most popular media critic in my home country The Netherlands at the moment is the 28-year-old Madeleijn van den Nieuwenhuizen who runs the successful Instagram account Zeikschrift and the newsletter Vrijbrief. My guess is that most Editors in chiefs follow her. When she highlights incorrect coverage or flaws in reporting in one of the major national news outlets it mostly takes a short time for the organisations to rectify their mistakes.
The way Van den Nieuwenhuizen takes her job seriously, by depending on donations to be able to remain independent, shows there is an opportunity for media accountability even through social media platforms. And the best thing is, the account is open for everyone to follow and not just accessible by the industry.
We don’t need new tools, we just need to refocus. Firstly on technological innovation based on morality and ethics, secondly on underrepresented voices that hold solutions to the global media challenges. Inclusive journalism isn’t rocket science, it just asks for an honest look in the mirror. A critical inward look at our work that paves the way forward to a healthier, inclusive fundament to media.