Watching the Watchdog: Launch of EJN International Report on Self-regulation

Systems of self-regulation of media and journalism need radical rethinking if they are to survive the harsh economic and political realities of news media in the digital age. That’s the key conclusion of an international survey issued by the Ethical Journalism Network today.

The report – The Trust Factor – tests how well journalism is monitored and its mistakes handled in 16 countries, including challenging hotspots in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia.

“The results of this survey are startling,” says Aidan White, the EJN Director. “Norway emerges as a stand-out model of self-regulation, but it’s a world apart from most countries where journalists and editors battle corruption, legal controls and political interference at all levels.”

The report, which is launched in Oslo this afternoon, highlights how the unity and solidarity of people across all platforms of media is the key to building public trust in journalism. The system works best in Norway and a few other countries because all media players – in television, online and print – pull together. They follow one, single code of conduct which is recognised and respected inside journalism and which applies to media on all platforms. In addition, Norway is also a pioneer of ground-breaking transparency by allowing public access to complaints hearings.

But in only a handful of countries, mostly in northern Europe, are there systems of self-regulation that command public trust. The report looks at the situation in many countries where journalism is stifled by media laws, such as Hungary, or by political interference as in South Africa or by indifference and divisions within the media community, such as Pakistan.

And public anger over newsroom bias and corruption can even lead to violence. For example, the report reveals how journalists have been targeted for covering demonstrations calling for democracy in Brazil.

The crisis over self-regulation in media is a mix of economic problems and outdated systems of government media regulation, as well as internal rivalries and divisions within the media community. Across the globe, media face legal controls, particularly covering broadcast journalism. Even in most democratic countries television newsrooms – which are still the main news provider for most people – come under legal control. Even in the United States the Federal Communications Commission, the big stick of legal regulation, is rarely used yet has certainly shaped the culture of the country’s broadcast system.

Another challenge facing self-regulators is to find ways of paying for press councils and accountability systems. Only a handful of countries have media that are ready to pay for systems of self-regulation. The report suggests that public money should be used to pay for handling public complaints. After all, this is a public-interest activity, but the report acknowledges that the idea comes with a major challenge — “How can public funding be used without compromising editorial independence?”

The report outlines a brief checklist for effective self-regulation and argues for action to promote self-regulation at all levels. It particularly calls for strengthening systems of self-policing inside every media house.

It welcomes the growth of readers’ editors, ombudsmen and public representatives inside the newsrooms and says that to make self-regulation credible media must step up and commit themselves to systems of good governance, transparency and a greater willingness to admit their mistakes.

The report says that in the digital era building trust with the audience should be a priority in every newsroom and media owners should be ready to pay for it. “Keeping journalism honest is money well spent for media,” it concludes, “and, for the public at large, it’s a good investment in democracy.”

Click here to download the report.