Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Watchdog Role of the Media

The Watchdog Role of the Media - Media as the Fourth Estate

By Leonard Ibrahimi

The watchdog conception, according to which, the media is supposed to serve as a controller of government, is one among the oldest main beliefs in journalism. The term ‘fourth estate’, the press’ role in being a ‘watchdog’ that will control the government was reputedly coined by Edmund Burke, in late-eighteenth century in England to refer to the political power possessed by the press of that time, on a same level with the other three ‘estates’ of power in the British realm: Lords, Church and Commons.[1]
In the beginning, the idea of the press as the ‘fourth estate’ was considered as an independent check on the activities of the state, particularly government. On the other hand, the development of the watchdog role goes further than the borders of government investigation to take account of many other institutions of societal power, including powerful individuals, who may have no official relationship with public office.

This essay will aim to explain the ‘watchdog’ role of the media; in particular it will deal with issues like: Social Responsibility Theory, current trends of media agenda setting, and how media fulfills its role in the society and how it helps opinion make wise and informed decisions. In countries where democracy is fragile, there is less emphasis on the ‘watchdog’ role of the media; circumstances dictate such a thing. On the other hand, in the democratic countries, in the societies with a high level of political culture, the ‘watchdog’ role of the media is highlighted very strongly. Media are considered as a ‘fourth estate’, as a powerful ‘watchdog’, which is used for revealing mistreatments of state authority, in particular protecting the democratic and constitutional rights of the citizens. However, with the slow, but stable, decline of the public’s belief in the mass media,[2] it is contentious whether the ‘watchdog’ role of the media is still undamaged. The essay will prove that media still remains ‘watchdog’, the ‘fourth estate’ that, more or less, realizes its responsibilities toward society.


Social Responsibility Theory

The Social Responsibility Theory is one among other press theories; some say, there are four theories, the others say that there are really just two theories of the press, Authoritarian and Libertarian, which the latter two theories, Social Responsibility and Soviet Communist are merely extensions of.[3] Nevertheless, the Social Responsibility Theory is very important one; it is considered as a theory that should serve to the achievement of valid societal goals. According to this theory, the media have responsibilities toward society; the media should be available to more than a marginal group of people and present more than the opinions of influential politicians. Therefore, the essence of the Social Responsibility Theory is an affirmative role in advocating social justice for general public, which are powerless.

The social responsibility tradition that received its philosophical basis in the American commission of 1947 was actually put into practice with much more determination and effects in countries other than the United States, especially in Western Europe in the two or three decades following the Second World War.[4] The idea was to put order in media’s scene of the Europe; it was a post-war period and Europe needed, more than any thing else, an accountable media that will act responsibly toward demands of society, it will promote a social justice. In a way, for the media, social responsibility should be always a main concern.

The social responsibility model involved a number of ways in which the state could attempt to play a role in attempting to ensure that media fulfills their social obligations whilst at the same time trying, more or less, to retain the independence of the journalism and the freedom of the speech.[5] Mass media should provide citizens with information. They should identify the problems in our society, and unlawful activities of those who have power. Media also should have mobilization function, campaigning for societal purposes in the area of politics and economic development. So, everywhere, social tasks come prior to media rights and freedoms.

The social responsibility model suggests that among others: the media have obligations to society; news media should be truthful, fair, objective and relevant; the media should be free, but self-regulated; the media should follow agreed codes of ethics and professional conducts.[6] According to this, the media in Kosovo and in the region, with a few exceptions, are not respecting the bases of the Social Responsibility Theory. For instance, the daily Bota Sot, deals more with untruthful accusations than with news (i.e. during the national elections before two years daily Bota Sot has written about Mr. Veton Surroi and his ‘marriage’ with the sister of Xhoana Nano-the wife of former Prime Minister, Mr. Fatos Nano).

On the other hand, the Public Television of Kosova (RTK) deals more with unimportant issues than with important ones. People acquire factual information about public affairs from television news, but they also learn how much importance to attach to a topic on the basis of emphasis placed on it in the news. If the first story on the newscast is unimportant one, if the length of time dedicated to the salient story is too short, as RTK is doing there is no way to fulfill tasks toward the public. By calling attention to the secondary matters, while ignoring the important ones, RTK is not fulfilling its responsibilities to citizens of Kosova.

According to the Social Responsibility Theory, socially responsible media also should represent the public and speak for and to the public interest in order to hold government accountable.[7] So, the media should be considered as ‘watchdog’ that the public rely on for revealing errors and wrongdoing by governmental institutions. The Public Television has never revealed even one illegal act, which is done by governmental institutions, and, of course, there are plenty of them. On the other hand, there are some media, socially responsible, that represent the public interest. One of them is daily Koha Ditore; this daily newspaper has revealed a lot of unlawful activities of politicians. A few days ago this newspaper, Koha Ditore has revealed a latest scandal of Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, Mr. Astrit Haraqia. The Minister Haraqia has engaged the Italian songstress with Albanian origin to sing for his birthday; every thing has been paid from the money of Kosovo’s tax-payers.

Even in United States, the first constitutional democracy in the world, there are a lot of cases when different forms of media fail to cover issues in a socially responsible manner. For instance, the Nevada Daily Mail, while writing about an investment of Murphy Farms in their city, represented it as a family farm instead of a corporate giant run by Wendell Murphy, an influential former state legislator who is actively involved in gaining agricultural exemptions from state sales taxes; and environmental regulations.[8] Therefore, readers were told not only that family farm had arrived but that the arrival involved potentially controversial issues, such as problems with environment. As a result this investment was not done, since it was not allowed by citizens. By doing this, Nevada Daily Mail didn’t fulfill its tasks to citizens, and later was accused by them for misinformation.[9]

On the other hand, the media’s scene of United States is full of examples where media cover issues in a socially responsible way; it remains a ‘watchdog’ that reveals bad behavior of politicians and in this way fulfills its responsibilities to public. Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were issues of national scope in which a more powerful executive branch of government threw its weight against the media’s ‘watchdog’ legacy; although there have been mixed reviews on the media’s role in these incidents, most authorities writing on that time identify these challenges as the media’s finest exercise of the ‘watchdog’ function.[10]


Current Trends of Media Agenda Setting


Agenda setting is a highly political process: political actors actively seek to bring issues on top of the agenda if they are looking for a change of policy, or to keep them off the agenda if they want to defend the status quo.[11] The function of the media in this process is essential since they determine which issues are the most important ones; agenda setting illustrates a very powerful authority of the media – the capability to inform the public what topics are important.

Two basis assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting: (1) the press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it; (2) media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.[12] First of all, media do not represent certainty; there are filters inside of the media, which decide what is ‘real’ and what is ‘false’. In other words, every thing passes through the filters of the media and after that it will be presented to the public; agenda setting is the process that lets some information to reach the audience while other information is kept out. Secondly, different forms of the media tell us which issues are worthy of our attention; or, as Bernard Cohen stated: “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”.[13]

The power of the news media to set a nation’s agenda, to focus public attention on a few key public issues, is an immense and well–documented influence.[14] Do the media in our country and in the region do such a thing? Of course, there are some media in our country that really set an agenda; however, a lot of them do not set an agenda. Among those media that do not set an agenda is our Public Television (RTK); Public Television of Kosova is characterized by an absence of power to set an agenda, to focus attention on a few important public issues. If most of the stories on the newscast are less important ones, if the length of time dedicated to the main story, if any, is too short, as RTK is performing, there is no chance to set an agenda. Besides, RTK deals more with irrelevant issues; consequently, Public Television remains a surrogate media, which doesn’t fulfill its tasks to public.

United States are known as a country where media set an agenda; this happens always, especially, during the elections. During these political races there is rarely evening news that goes by without having something about the city races, congressional races, and the presidential race.[15] Political debates and presidential news has always flooded the headlines and newscasts during the elections. These issues always are essential and everyone talks about the candidates and their programs. It happens like this since the media leads the public to believe that this is important. As McCombs and Shaw stated, “We judge as important what the media judge as important”.[16]


Conclusion

To conclude, the most important role of the media is that of ‘watchdog’, regular and independent inspection of those in power, including, supply of trustworthy information about their activities. The main concern to the watchdog role is to do the investigative journalism. By doing this, the media consider themselves as a representative of the wide public, and of course, the opponent of government. Media representatives have this right as members of the ‘fourth estate” – their role is to keep an eye on politicians on behalf of the public. This role of the media, the ‘watchdog’ role, is essential if citizens want to hold public officials accountable for their actions. Although, there is a small decline of public’s beliefs in the mass media,[17] they still remain a ‘fourth estate’. Media perform its ‘watchdog’ role and in this way fulfills its tasks toward public; otherwise, the scandals mentioned above and unmentioned ones would always remain unrevealed.





Notes:

[1] Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory, London, SAGE Publication, 2005, Pg. 169.
[2] Gerald C. Stone & Mary K. O’Donnell, “Public Perceptions of Newspaper’s Watchdog Role”, Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 18, N0. 1-2/1997.
[3] Vincent Campbell, Information Age of Journalism, London, Hodder, 2004, Pg. 32.
[4] Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory, London, SAGE Publication, 2005, Pg. 169.
[5] Vincent Campbell, Information Age of Journalism, London, Hodder, 2004, Pg. 36.
[6] Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory, London, SAGE Publication, 2005, Pg. 172.
[7] Kristie Bunton, “Social Responsibility in Covering Community: a Narrative Case Analyses”, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 13, N0. 4/1998.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Kristie Bunton, “Social Responsibility in Covering Community: a Narrative Case Analyses”, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 13, N0. 4/1998.
[10] Gerald C. Stone & Mary K. O’Donnell, “Public Perceptions of Newspaper’s Watchdog Role”, Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 18, N0. 1-2/1997.
[11] Sebastian Princen, Agenda Setting in the European Union, Paper prepared for the NIG Annual Conference, Nijmegen, 11 November 2005.
[12] Paul Weyrich, “TV Network Creates New Link between Citizens, Politicians”, Insight on the News, Vol. 10, N0.4/1994.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Maxwell McCombs, The Agenda Setting Role of the Mass–media in Shaping the Public Opinion (The handbook of Naser Miftari).
[15] Brian Gittinger, “Agenda Setting Function Examples and Applications”, Insight on the News, Vol. 5/1994.
[16] Brian Gittinger, “Agenda Setting Function Examples and Applications”, Insight on the News, Vol. 5/1994.
[17] Gerald C. Stone & Mary K. O’Donnell, “Public Perceptions of Newspaper’s Watchdog Role”, Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 18, N0. 1-2/1997.




Bibliography

McQuail, Denis. Mass Communication Theory, London: SAGE Publication, 2005.
Stone, Gerald C. & Mary K. O’Donnell. “Public Perceptions of Newspaper’s Watchdog Role”, Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 18, N0. 1-2/1997.
Campbell, Vincent. Information Age of Journalism, London: Hodder, 2004.
Bunton, Kristie. “Social Responsibility in Covering Community: a Narrative Case Analyses”, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 13, N0. 4/1998.
Princen, Sebastian. Agenda Setting in the European Union, Paper prepared for the NIG Annual Conference, Nijmegen, 11 November 2005.
Gittinger, Brian. “Agenda Setting Function Examples and Applications”, Insight on the News, Vol. 5/1994.
McCombs, Maxwell. The Agenda Setting Role of the Mass–media in Shaping the Public Opinion (The handbook given by Naser Miftari).Weyrich, Paul. “TV Network Creates New Link between Citizens, Politicians”, Insight on the News, Vol. 10, N0.4/1994.

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