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Austria – (E8) Level of self-regulation (performance)

Score in short:

Self-regulation occurs rather informally; institutionalized or codified rules and procedures are rare.

Score in detail:

All Austrian news media provide a mission statement declaring their fundamental orientation as required by the Media Act (Mediengesetz, 2009, § 25(4)). However, as the law does not contain any further instructions about the length and content of mission statements, those of some news media are rather short and non-specific (e.g., Kronen Zeitung, Profil). Many of them refer to the independence of the medium and its responsibility for democracy and human rights. In particular, our respondents from quality newspapers emphasized the importance of the medium’s mission statement as a reference in internal discussions about news coverage and news production being the medium’s fundamental orientation point. However, other interviewees asserted that they rather rely on the internalization of basic rules of journalistic work on an individual and informal basis.

In addition, most Austrian news media have editorial statutes, although only the ORF and the national newspaper Kurier publish them online. The relevance of those codified orientation papers in the journalistic daily business is quite diverse. The ORF hands out its mission statement, the editorial statutes and the ORF-Act to every new employee on the first working day, and the rights and duties contained in those documents are regularly discussed. On the contrary, some editors-in-chief (in particular from regional print media and online media) were not even sure about the existence of such guidelines, let alone their actual content.

All of our respondents asserted that a critical review of the journalistic work is part of every editorial conference and takes place at least once a day for 15 to 30 minutes. In weekly news magazines, editorial conferences only take place once a week, but therefore are more extensive. The editor-in-chief of the online medium of our news media sample even mentioned that editorial meetings were held three times a day (mainly via email), including email discussions afterwards. The news department of ORF Television has three editorial meetings a day, the radio department two. Most of our respondents were skeptical about the invitation of external critics to their editorial meetings. While some newsrooms practice this regularly by inviting prominent people, journalists from other news media, economic experts, politicians and on rare occasions also academics, some editors-in-chief totally denied the usefulness of such critique. None of the news media in our sample has an ombudsman; the editors-in-chief stated that such a position was rarely ever discussed and generally not considered necessary. Only the quality newspaper Die Presse has an external and independent observer who is in part responsible for reader’s complaints and publishes his critique about the news coverage of Die Presse once a month in the medium itself (Spiegelschrift).

Three of our interviewees mentioned that they are currently working on codes of conduct (Salzburger Nachrichten, Die Presse, ORF), which however are still subject to acceptance by all contributors. All other editors-in-chief doubted the necessity and usefulness of such written guidelines, as the fundaments of journalistic work were expected to be clear to all journalists. even though written guidelines for journalistic work are rare, most newsrooms established informal procedures of news production (e.g., that all articles have to be revised by a second person). However, some interviewees admit that in particular in situations of time pressure, such informal rules are neglected. If journalistic standards are violated by an employee, this is usually discussed bilaterally, although consequences are rare. Only the interviewees from the ORF refer to the possibility of legal consequences deriving from a complaint before the federal Communications Board.

The ORF established more complex control and feedback structures. first, every news feature must be accepted by the sub-department chief, the department chief and the program responsible. Second, the presenter writes the text on the basis of the news feature. Third, the presenter and the journalist both have to release their versions, which are controlled and accepted once again by the program responsible. This system was established to avoid errors and violations of journalistic standards before going on air. In addition, every journalist has the right to get more general feedback about his/her work from the editor-in-chief during an individual staff appraisal three times a year. furthermore, the ORF regularly consults an external private consulting company.