03 December 2010

The Media, Government Accountability, and Citizen Engagement

By Katrin Voltmer

Forthcoming in Pippa Norris (ed.): Public Sentinel: New Media and the Governance Agenda, Washington DC: The World Bank, 137-159. This paper was first presented during a Harvard-World Bank Workshop on "The Role of the News Media in the Governance Reform Agenda", held May 2008.

This paper explores the notion of accountability and how it can be applied to the relationship between governments, citizens, and the media in transitional democracies. In it, Katrin Voltmer explores the normative expectations underlying government accountability, social accountability, and media accountability - contrasting them with professional journalistic practices that generate a kind of news coverage that often falls short of these ideals. Because the media are not assimilated by viewers and readers at face value, Voltmer goes on to explore research that has been conducted to better understand the media's influence on citizens' politics.

Voltmer's argument is premised on the claim that democratic accountability encompasses not only political power holders but also the citizens and the media that link governments and citizens. She observes that the ability and willingness of the citizens to engage in political life, in addition to the quality of public communication, play an important part in strengthening the link between those in power and the citizenry. Voltmer suggests that collective accountability means civic engagement that goes far beyond voting: "if citizens are ignorant about political issues, do not make an effort to have a say, despise their representatives, and do not believe in democratic values, then the viability of that democracy might be seriously at risk - even if the institutions are perfectly designed."

Voltmer also discusses the media's roles as agenda-setters, gatekeepers, and watchdogs - indicating that the normative assignment of these roles (what the media "should" in theory be and/or do) is based on the expectation that the media act in the public interest and are accountable to the public.

Voltmer goes on to discuss the various factors that limit the chances for successful watchdog journalism. Even in established democracies like the United States, journalists often quote high-ranking politicians rather than civil society groups in their effort to provide their news stories with authoritative backing. This means that, "in the daily routines of news production, the interaction between journalists and politicians is characterized by a high degree of cooperation, frequently even a symbiotic relationship..."

Voltmer outlines the various factors systematically affecting the quality of political information produced by the media - for instance, the standards by which journalists select their stories and the way in which the media present and frame political issues (e.g., "political issues are usually presented in an 'episodic frame' that is person-centered and event-driven, rather than in a 'thematic frame' that covers the broader social, economic, or historical context of a problem.") Yet a "structural bias" caused by the specific selectivity of news values affects the media's ability to promote democratisation: "when it comes to consolidating the newly established democratic order, news coverage that centers on single events, on conflict, and on what goes wrong might be less effective in helping citizens understand the complex process of change the country is undergoing."

She goes further, arguing that "In most new democracies, in particular, postcommunist Eastern Europe and Latin America, nearly all media, whether print or audiovisual, are taking sides in favor of particular political parties, candidates, societal groups, or ideologies, whereas neutral, or balanced, news coverage is clearly an exception." To explain this assertion, the author distinguishes:
  • Internal diversity, where a single media outlet comprises all relevant viewpoints without favouring a particular position (example: the BBC, with its commitment to balance and neutrality).
  • External diversity, which establishes the representation of all viewpoints through the aggregation of individual media, each promoting a particular cause or ideology. This type of orientation, Voltmer argues, constitutes trust between audiences and "their" media and has the potential to encourage political participation. That said, "External diversity can be a detrimental, even dangerous, force in situations where no mechanisms have been found to moderate conflicts between antagonistic groups....To evaluate the political implications of external diversity, it is important to consider the distribution of views in the whole system."

Voltmer's question in the next section is whether the media in new democracies foster, or undermine, the emergence of a political culture that is conducive to the consolidation of the new democratic order. In order to understand the factors that limit the influence of the media on individual political opinions, she points to an analysis of a campaign communication carried out in the 1940s in small-town America.

A key lesson to emerge from this research is that "the role of the media in public opinion building is primarily seen providing the raw material for political conversations in the form of information about recent events, but the evaluation of this information and the conclusions to be drawn from it are largely shaped by the dynamics of social interaction." Recent scholarly research has tried to understand this relationship between interpersonal and mass communication and to assess the specific impact of each of these two forms of communication.

Voltmer moves on to explore the dynamics of public communication and electoral politics in new democracies. After regime change, it often takes time for political parties to develop stable ties with their constituencies, she notes; thus, "it can be assumed that in transitional democracies there is much more room for the media to affect people's political opinions..."

She offers the example of the Russian Federation from the early 1990s onward, using this illustration to make the point that "The role of the media in the agenda-setting process is to generate salience for some issues, or particular aspects of issues, thereby drawing public attention to a limited set of current problems. It has to be kept in mind that selectivity is an inevitable, even necessary, aspect of information processing....Because for ordinary citizens the media are the main window to the world of politics, people regard as most important those problems that have recently been given most salience in the news..."

Voltmer fills out this picture by referencing Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's theory of the "spiral of silence". As she points out, when talking about politics with those who are not necessarily like-minded, people supporting a party well represented in the media would feel confident enough to express their views because they have support structures for their argument. They might not initially be in the majority, but their willingness to talk - in conjunction with selective media coverage - would, as Voltmer puts it, "soon make this view the dominant one in both the public debate and interpersonal communication. It would hence be the one that has the biggest impact on the outcome of the election."

Voltmer points to conflicting research on the question of whether the way in which the media portray politics (e.g., distrust of political officials (potentially) displayed by (some) journalists) breeds political/civic cynicism among citizens. Her explanation of these apparent inconsistencies is, centrally, a methodological one: experimental studies are more likely to produce results that suggest a negative influence of the media, whereas large-scale survey research generally comes to a more positive view. She explains why this is the case, then cites a study which analysed representative survey data collected during the mid-1990s from six third-wave democracies - Greece, Spain, Chile, Uruguay, Bulgaria, and Hungary - in the context of national elections.

The results of the analysis showed that the media have an effect over and above factors like age, education, gender, ideological predispositions, and socioeconomic positions. About one-quarter of the variance on political orientations can be, directly or indirectly, attributed to exposure to the news media.

The empirical evidence suggests that the media facilitate democratic citizenship. Information-rich media have the strongest effect, with print media (quality and regional papers) being more effective than television. Similar differences between print and audiovisual media have been found in established democracies. Only about 40% of respondents read newspapers, whereas the majority follow the news on television, "which has fewer beneficial or no effects on democratic citizenship."

This study also found that the media are clearly most powerful with regard to the cognitive mobilisation of citizens; that is, exposure to the news media increases political knowledge and stimulates interest in politics. To a lesser degree the media also promote active participation. They are less effective in changing individuals' evaluations of politics and their general values. (Voltmer stresses that the single-wave survey analysis on which this study was based does not allow clear conclusions as to the direction of causality.) Again with caution, she argues that citizens in countries where the political transition occurred most recently (Bulgaria and Hungary) are most affected by media influences. The strength of media effects declines as a democracy becomes more established.

In concluding, Voltmer offers some suggestions for policymakers who wish to strengthen the role of the media in processes of democratisation:

  • First, when choosing media institutions, policymakers should ask: "Is press freedom regarded as an absolute value? Or is preference given to a consequentialist view that relates press freedom to its benefits for the wider public good?" Voltmer explains that each view leads to different conclusions as to the best policy options. Understanding press freedom as an absolute value restricts regulative policies to a minimum. A consequentialist approach would put the public interest first, and would imply taking active measures to commit the media to deliver information of a quality that fosters both government accountability and social accountability.
  • Another basic choice relates to whether internal or external diversity (see above) is regarded as essential for informed citizenship. "Internal diversity regards the journalistic norm of objectivity and neutrality as universal. However, external diversity and advocacy journalism can play an important role in bringing about a vibrant public sphere. Again, the choice will be largely dependent on the particular circumstances of a given transitional society."
  • Political communicators should keep in mind that effective public communication involves more than employing professional media strategies: "to help citizens make sense of politics and actively engage in political decision making, mediated communication and social communication 'on the ground' have to be merged....Practices of deliberative democracy have proved particularly effective in community decision making. Especially in new democracies these forums can be excellent workshops of citizen empowerment and effective collective action."

Dr. Katrin Voltmer (k.voltmer@leeds.ac.uk) is Senior Lecturer in Political Communication at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. This summary of her paper originally appeared in The Communication Initiative website, http://www.comminit.com/en/node/280324. It is used with permission of Ms. Voltmer.

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