The Netherlands: Can journalism live with a more demanding public?
By Dr. Yael de Haan
Following the 2014 crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, in which 196 of the 298 casualties were Dutch citizens, the role of the media reporting of the disaster was much contested both off-line and online. Criticism was voiced over perceived disregard for the victims’ privacy and a lack of fact-checking. Protests were particularly strong when a journalist went through the personal belongings of victims and read excerpts from someone’s diary during a prime-time television broadcast.
Such incidents have provoked discussion on how media should take their public responsibility and be held accountable. When in 2012 Dutch Prince Friso was severely injured in a ski accident, a journalist of a high-quality newspaper wrote an article on the critical, but stable situation of the prince, as she happened to be in the hospital with her husband, a surgeon. The article led to wide public consternation after it was discovered that the prince’s condition was far from positive and that she had not checked her sources.
Robust political discussion about the role of media is not new in the Netherlands. Media coverage of the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2001 and his assassination in 2002 triggered a discussion on media accountability. Media were blamed for not reporting Fortuyn’s controversial complaints about migration and his death activated a debate on media responsibility.
This debate became even more prominent when in 2003 two government advisory commissions, the Council for Social Development and the Council for Public Administration published the report Media Logic: about the power between the public, media and politics. Specific suggestions were made for more effective self-regulating measures.
More than ten years later the Minister of Media is again putting accountability on the agenda in the context of regulation of the digitalised media landscape.
This report provides an overview on how self-regulation is arranged in the Netherlands at country, enterprise and individual journalistic level. And maybe more importantly, it provides an answer to what extent self-regulating measures are embedded in journalistic profession and culture.
Self-regulation at country level
The Dutch government has always shown strong support for media self-regulation. The Dutch Minister of Media has also reinforced the view that government should have a low profile in matters of journalism. This is not only to safeguard press freedom, but also to not intervene in a market sector that should be economically independent. For this reason, government has facilitated by only providing temporary subsidies for specific projects. The majority of the media agree with this, as they believe an independent, self-sustaining and free press is the highest priority.
In 2003 government supported the proposals for media self-regulation from the Council for Social Development which called for: a stronger press council, a media debate organisation to stimulate ethical debate, and a news monitor to provide data on how media perform. Initially, media reacted defensively, but eventually a more open approach prevailed in which media not only supported these measures but also took their own initiatives. They felt the need to do something, particularly to defuse the threat of government regulation. These self-initiated measures will be discussed in the next section.
The Dutch Press Council was established in 1960 and handles public complaints. The council is a commission of journalists and media and legal experts and deals with complaints concerning all types of media but only when it comes from a complainant directly involved in the media coverage. Approximately 90 complaints are dealt with per year.
The Council does not have the power to impose fines, reprimands or suspensions. It is financed by contributions of umbrella media organisations such as the Journalist’s Union and the Association of Editors-and publishers. From 2009 till 2013 it also received a subsidy from the government.
Over the years the Council has had to deal with recurring criticism that it cannot impose sanctions, that the complaints procedure is too long, and for not adapting to the digital age. Many say it is a ‘toothless tiger’. Also media complain over its juridical procedure and style. Moreover, more recently some media believe the Council is abusively being used as vehicle in court cases. Since 2000, several large media have refused to collaborate with the Council. They do not show up when a complaint affects them and they do not publish the verdict.
The Council responded in 2013 with a series of reforms to gain the goodwill of media and to hopefully receive more subsidies from them. It was particularly urgent because government subsidy had ended and umbrella media organisations were not eager to provide more financial support. There was also a threat to introduce possible regulating measures from the European Union, which provided even more reason for the Council to act.
A new chairman was appointed in 2013. Specifically a renowned journalist was chosen and not someone with a legal background. Procedures were revised to ensure complaints are submitted to media bodies involved before being dealt with by the council and during 2014 the ethical code was rewritten with a reduced legal character. Additionally, complaints will be processed only if it concerns media bodies that recognise the legitimacy of the council. As a result several media including the second largest news organisation, RTL Nieuws and the renowned opinion magazine, Elsevier, have rejoined the council. However, the most widely circulated newspaper in the Netherlands, de Telegraaf, remains outside its jurisdiction.
The other proposals from the Council for Social Development – a media debate organisation and a news monitor – were both launched in 2005 but they closed five years later when temporary government funding ended. No media support was forthcoming to keep them alive.
The use of ethical codes in journalism adds to the capacity for self-regulation. The Dutch Journalist Union always has conformed to the Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists drafted in 1954 by the International Federation of Journalists. In 1995 the Association of Editors-in-Chief wrote a general code, including aspects of truth, independency, and fairness. In 2007 the Press Council issued a code for journalists to be used when judging incoming complaints. This has been adapted to comply with the digital landscape including articles on hyperlinks and social media and is currently being further updated.
In practice journalists do not consult the ethical codes much and only 20 percent of media actually publish their codes (Groenhart, 2013; Groenhart & Evers, 2014). Nevertheless, a study among 60 Dutch journalism experts still believe that codes can have a positive effect, helping journalists in their ethical decisions and showing transparency and accountability to the public. (Van der Wurff & Schonbach, 2011)
While there is consensus among Dutch media that government should keep out of the self-regulation of journalism and in 2014 there is more support for self-regulation and the press council, there is still an absence of initiatives from inside media and journalism to set up and fund a strong self-regulating system. One reason may be that many media believe measures taken at enterprise level can have more effect.
Self-regulation at enterprise level
Not only increasing media criticism, but also a rapidly changing media climate with new technologies, media concentration and commercialisation obliges media to take their audience seriously. There has been a rise in the number of self-regulating accountability instruments initiated by individual media.
These days any reader or viewer can complain about media coverage and even when the complainant is not directly involved. In a changing society with an increasing assertive and demanding citizen and the advent of new technologies journalists feel the obligation to respond to the public and are more willing to do so.
Moreover, with decreasing circulation figures newspapers and fewer young people watching news on television media feel more than ever the need to satisfy the reader or viewer. “In the past we would push those things aside and we were also inaccessible, so the public’s concerns didn’t reach us, now we have come out of the ivory tower”, a newspaper journalist commented.
Also specific incidents which have revealed challenges for media have had an impact. The Fortuyn affair, for instance, was a clear trigger in the debate. A journalist of the newspaper de Volkskrant said: “the Fortuyn incident was definitely rock bottom in history.”
Nowadays news outlets provide a general email where people can send their reactions, complaints and questions. Large organisations, such as the public broadcaster NOS have a public complaints desk where public reactions are collected and dealt with.
By centralising the complaints the workload of the journalists is reduced. An employee of the public complaints desk explained: “the reactions can be very harsh, racist, sexist and discriminating. The staff should not be bothered with these mails”.
Nevertheless, more newspapers are publishing the author’s names with each article. This way the journalist can be tracked and addressed personally.
Also the digital-savvy journalist often has a Twitter account, which makes it easier to communicate with the public and to provide explanation for journalistic choices or rectify mistakes when necessary.
The first news ombudsman appointed in the Netherlands was in 1990. Since then several regional and national newspapers have employed ombudsmen. However, over the past years the numbers have fallen, largely because for reasons of cost.
Currently, only two national newspapers have an ombudsman, De Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad. They are intermediaries between the public and the newspaper and deal with complaints. Even though the newspaper employs them, they have to be guaranteed an independent position within the organisation.
In 2007, the Dutch public service broadcaster NOS appointed an ombudsman with the objective to show accountability to the public, to improve the media coverage and to create more internal awareness of the public opinion in the Netherlands. After two years a second ombudsman was installed, but she resigned after less than a year. For a long time it was not clear how this position would be fulfilled, but as of end 2011 the NOS has installed a committee of experts consisting of five independent people who provide advice to the management board and judge public complaints when the complainant was not satisfied with the procedure through the public complaints desk. Currently, there is again a vacancy for an individual ombudsman.
The newspapers who have an ombudsman believe this position is quite valuable and can improve relations with readers. It is also a way for the newspaper to reflect on their own media coverage.
As a journalist of de Volkskrant said: “We usually dread when the ombudsman comes to our department, knowing that someone has complained about our work. At the same time we take him seriously and find him unassailable for the reader.
Nevertheless, with only two ombudsmen employed, most media seem to prefer to respond to public complaints without the intervention of an ombudsman. A recent survey among journalists in 14 countries also shows that Dutch journalists are not keen on the role of an ombudsman.
As an editor-in-chief of a broadcaster explicitly stated: “We do not need an institution like an ombudsman. It is our responsibility to respond to mistakes and correct them when necessary.” Other newspapers, mainly regional, do not have to the resources to appoint an ombudsman.
A rather old instrument of showing accountability is the correction box. The quality newspapers offer this on a structural basis, however often not on a prominent place in the newspaper. Popular newspapers provide correction as and when they feel the need. Since 2009 the public broadcaster NOS started publishing corrections on their website as an alternative to correcting mistakes during the news bulletin which often felt too ponderous.
A few Dutch news media provide a letter of the editor-in-chief, discussing their journalistic performance and media coverage. Only one newspaper, Trouw, does this on a weekly basis. Others provide a ‘letter’, column or weblog when felt necessary (Evers & Groenhart, 2011).
These self-regulatory instruments not only provide accountability to the public, but can also be a way for journalists to reflect on their own performance. So-called self-evaluations have been initiated a few times by editors-in-chief to reconstruct and analyse how a journalistic product was made in order to find out what can be learned from mistakes made.
De Volkskrant was the first to do an extensive self-evaluation in 2002 on its own coverage of Srebrenica between 1993 and 1995 during the Balkan war. The media, including the newspaper, were accused of biased and emotion-driven reporting on the role of the Dutchbat (the Dutch battalion of the United Nations forces) during the Srebrenica massacre. A former ombudsman and the ombudsman carried out a self-reflective research, which led to a report and recommendations.
More recently, the editor-in-chief of NRC Handelslad asked the former ombudsman of de Volkskrant to judge the performance of the journalist who published about the critical state of Prince Friso after a ski accident. While initially the editor-in-chief was quite satisfied with this scoop, public dismay both offline and online obliged him to organise a self-evaluation. The resulting report was later published in full with a prominent rectification in which the editor apologised to readers “for not adhering to the high standards that you come to expect from us, as well as to the royal family for the personal loss that we may have amplified”.
While these self-evaluations were done by external, independent figures, more media are taking this route. Internal self-evaluations are particularly done under public pressure. This was the case during the Haren riot in 2012, when a 16-year-old girl accidentally put an open invitation on Facebook for her birthday party and more than 3,000 people showed up, leading to public disturbances, riots and many shops looted and vandalised, cars set on fire and journalists attacked.
Dutch media were accused of giving the build-up to the party too much publicity. For weeks on end many Dutch media responded to the accusations with reflections in blogs, talk shows and news bulletins. A recent survey shows that compared to others in Europe, Dutch media stand out in providing feedback.
In sum, in recent years the number of accountability instruments at enterprise level has risen. Increasingly media are preoccupied with financial difficulties, an increasingly fragmented public and a general trend towards commercialisation. Showing accountability and responding to public’s concerns is seen as a positive strategy. Media increasingly use accountability systems to improve their brand and to create more goodwill towards the reader or viewer.
Self-regulation at individual level
In their daily work, journalists are confronted with a new journalistic era, which does not only demand different skills, but also a change of mind-set in their relationship with the audience. That may explain the growth in the number of self-regulation at both country and enterprise level. However, the question remains to what extent the instruments are used by journalists.
On the plus side responding to complaints and providing explanation and transparency has increased in importance.
A unit head of the public broadcaster NOS said: “In the past we would push those things aside and we were also inaccessible so the public’s concerns didn’t reach us. The public accountability instruments such as the ombudsman, the online correction box, weblogs and the renewed public complaints desk are felt to be a way for the NOS to come out of the ivory tower”.
While many journalists support accountability in principle, the actual use of self-regulation systems often seems a step too far. Many believe they create quality products for public consumption and this already compels them to display accountability and formal self-regulating measures are redundant. When it comes to responding to complaints journalists are often not eager to respond. Sometimes the complaints are too tiresome. “There are a number of people who always complain about the language use. We don’t really take them seriously”.
Providing explanations on weblogs is preferred; the journalists decide when and how to interact with the public instead of just reacting liked a public complaints desk, ombudsman or press council. With the latter journalists and media have had a love — hate relationship over the years; they find it indispensable, but they are also critical of it.
Under this hesitant attitude lies a professional culture that is characterised by authority, autonomy and aloofness. To some journalists, being held accountable infringes professional autonomy and increasing interaction with the public is perceived as undermining professional authority. As a deputy editor-in-chief explained: “When journalists receive criticism they close their shells like an oyster”.
A key characteristic of the digital age is the increased influence of the public. This forces journalists to be more transparent and to correct their errors. For example, in 2013 on the website of De Telegraaf, the report of the death of Mandela was linked with the fictional Dutch Christmas character Zwarte Piet as Mandela’s passing away happened to coincide with this Dutch festivity. Many people on Twitter found this offensive. While the article was taken offline after half an hour, the newspaper, which is generally not considered to be sensitive to public criticism and does not collaborate with the press council, publicly apologised.
As coverage of the MH17 air crash showed journalists today cannot run away from their mistakes. When a current affairs programme aired footage of a journalist going through personal belongings there was a lot of public anger and the editor-in-chief was forced to apologise. It’s an example of the increasing power of the public due to the use of social media. Journalists may hesitate over responding to the public, but in the digital world they face with a public voice which is hard to ignore.
If the Netherlands is pro-active in terms of self-regulation and transparency, it is still uncertain about the use of formal accountability instruments at country level. The press council is not fully embraced by media. While most acknowledge it and participate, a resistant attitude remains. Most prefer accountability at organisational or individual level. An editor-in-chief of a regional newspaper that left the press council in 2012 explained in the newspaper that he does not need formal solutions: “Our organisation will deal with the complaints of the readers by ourselves” (Even so, it should be noted that with the revisions of the Press Council in 2013 the newspaper rejoined.)
In their daily work many media and journalists still find it difficult to make themselves accountable. The autonomous culture of journalism remains in place. New systems have been introduced, but not internalised. There is still a need for a change in the media mindset in favour of openness and connection with the public. This needs to be seen not just as necessary, but desirable. Many journalists still find it difficult to interact with the public.
Although self-regulation has gained much attention and many such tools have been introduced, the impact of these changes is unclear. There is a lack of consensus among different media actors as to their effectiveness. The resistance of journalists at individual level hinders the development of an increasingly open climate. Ultimately it may be the public, with its newfound influence and clout that will force the media to change.
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