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INDICATOR: Control / Watchdog (C)

The structural feature Control / Watchdog refers to the specific country and its media system and focuses on control mechanisms that exercise a watchdog role with regard to the media themselves. The extent to which media manage to hold accountable those who exercise power in society varies according to the degree to which media companies are an integral part of power structures themselves, but also the degree of journalists’ freedom and independence:

“Yet, this inability to hold power to account shouldn’t be seen as an unprecedented “failure” of the media to perform its democratic role when, in fact, this has long been the media’s normal role under capitalism: to naturalise and legitimise existing and unequal social relations. (Fenton et al., 2020: 4)”

(C1) Supervising the watchdog ‘control of the controllers’

The first indicator of this dimension examines the existence of instruments monitoring media performance and is based on the assumption that scrutiny from other media leads to overall better performance (Foreman, 2010: 34). However, unspecific and general media critique (such as “media are fake news”) is not helpful in this respect. It is important to examine what tools different media have in order to adequately perform as watchdogs, as well as examining the extent to which the media actually deal with controversial matters, engage in public criticism, and risk antagonising either powerful interests or their own audience. Moreover, it is important to analyse the degree to which the media play an active role in their society or community.

Within a wider context, both the European Commission and the Council of Europe have recommended measures by member states to increase transparency of media ownership as a minimum requirement in democratic societies. Ownership structures can influence editorial policies and should be brought to the awareness of the public and of regulatory bodies (see Council of Europe, 2018). In a research project following up on these recommendations on pluralism and ownership, Fengler and colleagues (2014) scrutinised self-regulation and media accountability in some 14 countries and concluded that professional observers of the media such as independent media councils are much better placed to control the controllers than self-regulatory bodies. This indicator, therefore, asks about the existence and functioning of any such bodies. Researchers are requested to report about the level of media critique within the media, and by external observers, such as bloggers and academics.

Is there any institutionalized mechanism to control the performance and role of the news media?
If effective institutionalized mechanisms for scrutinizing the performance of the leading news media exist, it is more likely that democratic control will be guaranteed and thus that democracy will be promoted.

3: permanent debate on the role of the media as watchdogs, which engages a wider public; media themselves are a topic for critical journalistic coverage
2: media performance is often publicly discussed in the media, in online forums, or both; some forms of journalistic coverage of the media
1: media performance is occasionally discussed, but mostly by representatives of unsatisfied vested interests
0: no public debate about media performance

  • independent observers: news monitor, media blogs, professional journalistic journals, etc.
  • openness to external evaluation
  • existence of media bloggers media journals that report on media coverage
  • newspaper space / TV and radio programmes on news coverage, the media
Data Source
Observation, interviews

(C2) Independence of the news media from power holders

This structural indicator refers to independence of the news media from the government and big business. In The Media Manifesto, Fenton and colleagues (2020: 103) identify clientelism as a major threat to pluralism, and thus to democracy, “creating an ever more impoverished public sphere”. The more the media are independent of powerholders such as large businesses or the state, and the more this independence is guaranteed by formal rules or even laws, the better the media can fulfil their function as watchdogs, and the better democracy is served. In this regard, media ownership matters, as material and structural factors “dramatically impact a media system’s openness and diversity” (Pickard, 2020: 105). The decade 2010–2020 has witnessed quite a few diagonal ownership concentration instances, originating in the booming Internet economy: Jeff Bezos (Amazon) took over the Washington Post in 2013; Marc Benioff (Salesforce) took over Time Magazine in 2018; Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, launched his own media company First Look Media, with its online flagship The Intercept, in 2014; and in China, Jack Ma’s Alibaba took control of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in 2015. Such media business conglomerates potentially limit the editorial independence of the news media if commercial or other business interests are affected by their coverage (Saffer et al., 2020).

Therefore, this structural indicator examines the influence of political parties, business interests, and other social groups on the news media. Are financial investors, representatives of the government, or churches present on the board of the leading news media? Do non-media companies own news media? The normative assumption is that media should first feel obliged to the citizens, and not to powerholders.

How strong is the independence of the news media from various power holders and how is it ensured?
News media’s watchdog function requires a high degree of independence. More independence means more control of those in power, thus enhancing democracy.

3: no formal or ownership-related influence from powerholders on leading news media
2: powerful organisations have no say in leading news media, but are present as owners in minor news media
1: powerful organisations or individuals own or control important shares of leading news media
0: strong formal or ownership-related influence of powerholders on leading news media

  • are there shield laws in place to protect journalists?
  • are sources protected by law or other professional rules?
  • how important is party affiliation among leading news media?
  • are powerful business interests present on the boards of leading news media?
  • are non-media companies such as financial investors, political parties, churches, etc. among news media owners?
  • if yes: Rely on existing data: Ownership share of such non-media companies of total circulation/audience
  • is such diagonal ownership concentration transparent?
Data Source
Legal provisions, public service remit, corporate information (investors’ relations), interviews

(C3) Transparency of data on media system

Transparency is essential for democracy; thus, this indicator refers to citizens’ possibilities to inform themselves about the ownership and (conflict of) interest of leading news media. Ownership transparency increased in relevance and public attention over the first two decades of the century. In 2018, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)1 on media pluralism and transparency of media ownership. In the preamble, they point out that “transparency of media ownership can help to make media pluralism effective by bringing ownership structures behind the media – which can influence editorial policies – to the awareness of the public and regulatory authorities” (Council of Europe, 2018). Indeed, ownership transparency must be considered an indispensable – but certainly not sufficient – prerequisite for media independence.

This indicator asks if information on ownership and vested interests is published frequently and easily accessible. Does an imprint, as a minimum requirement, exist, and is it obligatory to make the ownership of a news medium transparent? Who provides information on leading mass media: journalists’ unions, government or regulatory authorities, universities, or research institutes? And to what extent is this information available? Potential sources for this information are company intelligences as well as public reports on the media for relevant information (ownership, key business figures, corporate social responsibility data, etc.).

How accessible is detailed information on the media system to the citizens?
Transparency is essential for democracy. The more easily citizens can inform themselves about the leading news media, the better the news media are placed to perform their watchdog function.

3: information on leading news media is published frequently and is easily accessible online or from other sources
2: such information is published once every year, but available online
1: such information is in principle available on request, but not available online
0: information on leading news media is not available or only available to experts

  • publication of ownership information in every edition / imprint (“impressum”)
  • information availability on leading news media provided by outside sources such as government, universities, unions, etc.
  • easily accessible and comprehensive information on leading news media on the Internet
  • data provided by regulatory authorities
Data Source
Reports; audience research, format research

(C4) Journalism professionalism

This performance indicator addresses shared norms and standards of journalistic work and ethos. Professionalism (Anderson, 2012) can be regarded as one main form of journalistic accountability, and it is considered “useful to examine journalistic performance and change” (Waisbord, 2013: 4). Professionalism is different from occupation and reaches beyond mere descriptions of what journalism does; rather, it aspires to include the “ethical dimension of journalism in democracy” (Waisbord, 2013: 7).

In this respect, there are enormous challenges. Recent literature points out that the traditional understanding of journalistic professionalism is eroding because of changes in technology as well as organisational structures. Deuze and Witschge (2018: 170–171) identify reconfigurations toward post-industrial and entrepreneurial arrangements, encompassing trends like job-hopping and precarity instead of job certainty and economic sustainability, atelier-style offices instead of newsrooms, and “agile development sequences” with “fast-paced projects with short design cycles”. It is clear that these developments confront professional values of the media’s watchdog function, such as trustworthiness, fairness, and objectivity, hence the importance of empirically assessing how professionalism is established in leading news media and to what extent it still relates to the watchdog model.

On the one hand, this indicator covers questions of journalistic ethics: Do journalists and society discuss media rules and ethics on a frequent basis? Is there any journalistic training on these matters? On the other hand, watchdog professionalism requires freedom from pressure in terms of space, time, and format. Empirically, newsroom journalists, as well as journalists’ unions, should be asked for the status of journalistic professionalism in their day-to-day practice.

How well developed is journalism professionalism?
Strong professional ethos and sufficient resources are prerequisites for the exercise of the watchdog function. Strong professionalism is therefore good for the watchdog function of the media.

3: high professional ethos and sufficient resources across all leading news media
2: while professional ethos prevails, professionalism is sometimes compromised by lack of resources
1: limited journalistic resources do not allow for high professional ethos
0: no or low professional ethos; very limited journalistic resources

  • workload of journalists / time for investigative research?
  • multi-media requirements of journalists? overload of journalistic capacities?
  • self-organization of journalists, discussing own rules and ethics; frequency of such meetings
  • public debate provoked by journalists about ethical behaviour statements of professional rules established by journalists
  • regular / irregular further education training for journalists on professional ethics
Data Source
Own research, field tests, interviews with journalists’ unions

(C5) Journalists’ job security

This structural indicator is based on the assumption that the better journalists are protected against dismissal due to their reporting, the better they can exercise their watchdog role. Journalism research found that perceptions of job quality and job security are positive predictors for journalists’ job satisfaction: “If employees are not satisfied in their jobs and fear being laid off, reduced work quantity and quality is inevitable” (Reinardy, 2012: 55). But this obvious and not surprising relation between job satisfaction and job security is more important than the individual welfare of journalists – job security is a prerequisite for investigative reporting. Journalists who fear their employer does not fully support their investigations may avoid unpredictable outcomes and personal risks. Job security for journalists is therefore more than just an incentive to work better, but it is an essential condition for bold watchdog journalism.

The decade of digitisation has decreased rather than increased journalists’ job security. Online media tend to employ less journalistic staff than incumbent media companies, relying more on freelance contributors. Self-sustained digitally-born media are still rare in many countries, and labour contracts are often weaker than in traditional press or television companies. On the juridical level, therefore, this indicator asks for legal provisions to save journalists from writing against their conviction (clause de conscience) as well as from being dismissed if their conviction is expressed in the commentary. On the level of the labour market, this indicator examines the share of freelancers and permanent staff in the newsrooms, as only long-term and secure contracts promote free and autonomous reporting.

What provisions are in place to provide a maximum of job security for journalists?
The more securely journalists can do their research and reporting work, the better they can exercise their watchdog function, and the better for democracy.

3: high degree of legal or professional security; journalists rarely lose their jobs
2: once employed, journalists normally remain employed for a long time, but such jobs are thinning out
1: news media change their journalistic staff frequently; employment for a longer period of time is not the rule
0: no or low job security; precarious journalistic jobs are the rule

  • legal provisions to save journalists from writing against their personal conviction (“clause de conscience”)
  • professional rules protecting journalists against dismissal because of personal convictions
  • labour contracts with long periods of notice (in case of dismissal)
  • proportion of freelancers and permanent staff systematic use of short-term contracting
Data Source
Own research, legislation, interviews with journalists’ unions

(C6) Practice of access to information

This structural indicator refers to journalists’ possibilities to gain access to public information. Actually, in many countries, this right to information does not privilege journalists over other citizens but is laid down in general legislation. Since 2011, the Canadian Centre for Law and Democracy (n.d.) is conducting an indicator-based survey on the right to information worldwide. Its 61 indicators include the recognition of a fundamental right of access to information by the legal framework (indicator 1), the right of everyone to file requests for information (indicator 4), that requests are free (indicator 24), and many more. Although the right to public information is considered universal, access for journalists is paramount. As stated earlier, taking the role of watchdog, journalists must be free from restrictions when they are researching government or state activities. Otherwise, the media cannot provide efficient and profound control and criticism. This indicator questions whether there is any media law providing unrestricted access to public information and how it is implemented.

How accessible is public information to journalists?
In order to exercise the watchdog function, journalists need access to public information.

3: no barriers for journalists; unrestricted access to public information
2: public information is accessible by law, but not in reality; journalists must spend time and effort to gain access
1: public information is not generally available, but single journalists manage to bypass restrictions and access public information
0: high barriers for journalists; government information is generally not publicly available

  • does the media law allow for access to public information?
  • do journalists enjoy privileges in accessing public information?
  • are there reports about problems of journalists seeking public information?
  • are there relevant restrictions against journalists accessing public information?
  • differences between promises and practices
Data Source
Own research, interviews with journalists and journalists’ unions

(C7) The watchdog and the media’s mission statement

This performance indicator examines the extent to which the news media perform their mission as journalistic watchdogs. The view of the media as watchdogs against the abuse of power and corruption has long been a steady component of the journalistic self-image and of Western democratic political theory (Nielsen, 2015). This indicator intends to reveal the extent to which the watchdog function is perceived. The indicator assumes that a strong mission statement in favour of investigative journalism facilitates the day-to-day work of journalists to exercise control. Managerial meta-studies on mission statements concede, however, that the effectiveness of mission statements as a communication tool is underexplored and the results of mission statements on performance are inconclusive (Alegre et al., 2018). Although effects of mission statements in general should not be overrated, watchdog mission statements in particular help journalists’ orientation in their routines and display the news media’s investigative identity to external stakeholders.

Does the mission statement of the company or the newsroom contain provisions on playing an active role as watchdogs / on investigative journalism or other forms of power control?
If a mission statement concerning watchdog journalism exists, it is more likely that democratic control will be guaranteed and thus that democracy will be promoted.

3: all leading news media refer to the watchdog role and exercise it
2: investigative and watchdog journalism is part of the self-conception of leading news media, but journalists rarely have resources to exercise it
1: investigative and watchdog journalism is laid down in mission statements, but is lip-service rather than reality in day-to-day practice
0: investigative and watchdog journalism is neither required, nor exercised

  • existence of mission statement, which refers to an active investigative journalism and contains duties to act as a trustee on behalf of the public
  • level of importance of watchdog for the media organization
  • examples for accountable watchdog role
Data Source

(C8) Professional training

This next performance indicator provides information on whether journalists are given the chance and opportunity to take part in professional training courses: the news media can only perform their watchdog duty if they have qualified staff resources. Since the turn of the century, continuous training regarding (big) data analysis, digital research methods, and collaborative online tools for investigative journalism has become state of the art for committed journalists. However, as the need to update skills and crafts about digital journalistic opportunities is becoming pertinent, further education inevitable. In parallel, journalism schools and other institutions offering further education for journalists are also called to improve and update their teaching methods and education models, “based on benefits digitalisation has to offer in an era of increased public awareness and interaction” (Maniou et al., 2020: 35). This indicator provides information about whether such contemporary trainings are available and used.

What importance is attached to journalism training?
If effective professional training on watchdog journalism is provided, it is more likely that democratic control will be guaranteed and thus that democracy will be promoted.

3: continuous knowledge training for journalists in news media available
2: training opportunities are provided, but are rarely used
1: training opportunities are not regularly provided, but those who wish to participate find ways and means to do so
0: continuous journalistic training is not provided and not exercised

  • continuous training; obligation for continuous training
  • not only skills but knowledge training
  • opportunities to learn and practice (big) data analysis for journalists
  • participation in training networks on digital research and investigation methods
  • enough resources (time and money) for each journalist
  • Are women professionals supported and encouraged to participate in training on digital and investigation methods?
  • availability, accessibility, and promotion of training on leadership for women
Data Source

(C9) Watchdog function and financial resources

A vital condition for exercising the watchdog role is that sufficient financial resources and time are available to journalists in the newsrooms. The more money there is at the disposal of newsrooms, the more reporters that can be employed, and the more funding there is to be invested in investigative journalism (Hamilton, 2016); thus, this indicator refers to the financial resources, regarding time and budgets, of newsrooms for performing their watchdog function. Limited resources have often been cited as a potential cause of constraint on the independence of journalism. Resources for their own investigations reduce the dependency on agency material. Additionally, news media perform better if they can make use of journalists who are trained specialists on given topics. Newsroom realities, however, suffer from budget cuts and less resources. This development is inherently linked to a much wider transformation of media economics and the frequent crises affecting the media. One element of Curran’s “triple crisis” of the media is the economic decline of journalism:

“The migration of advertising to sites like Facebook, Google and Craigslist […] has led to a total decrease in the size of the journalism workforce employed in many countries, and to smaller editorial budgets. This has resulted in less investigative reporting, more reliance on public relations, and more office-bound, derivative journalism.” (Curran, 2019: 192)

In this indicator, the size of the loss in resources for investigative reporting, or their defence by leading news organisations, is estimated.

Are there specific and sufficient resources for exercising investigative journalism or other forms of power control?
If sufficient resources for the scrutiny of government and business are given, it is more likely that democratic control will be guaranteed and thus that democracy will be promoted.

3: leading news media give highest priority to well-funded investigative journalism
2: journalistic investigation has priority, but the number of investigations is clearly limited by financial means
1: investigative journalism happens, but it is the exception rather than the rule
0: leading news media cannot afford their own investigations and rely on agency material or other sources instead

  • output composition (agency material, own material)
  • funds / time / money for investigative journalism
  • ad hoc provisions by the news medium for in-depth investigation
  • foreign correspondents
Data Source