The Wentegate or the rise of citizens as
Fifth estate and spontaneous media co-regulators
Department of Communication
University of Ottawa
September 25, 2012, Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Toronto-based newspaper The Globe and Mail, was forced to defend herself against a growing number of plagiarism accusations. Although the paper’s public editor, Sylvia Stead, had smoothed things over a few days prior (Stead 2012), criticism in social media continued to mount, and the story was beginning to appear in the traditional media.
The day before, the paper’s editor-in-chief recognized that Wente had not followed the proper sourcing standards. He also stated that disciplinary measures were taken, without specifying their nature, but did mention that Wente would remain on staff. It was also announced that, in the future, Stead would report directly to the publisher rather than to the newsroom, which is the practice in many news organizations, to avoid the perception of bias (Ladurantaye 2012). This action acknowledges and addresses a problem that can potentially damage the credibility of the public editor, despite the importance of this role as one of journalism’s self-regulatory mechanisms.
The Globe and Mail’s publisher added a note in the header of the electronic archive version of Wente’s column, stating that the author had paraphrased ideas that were not hers and had not provided proper references (Stead 2012). Wente claims, however, that the mistake she made was reproducing notes that she had taken down some time ago. Wente goes on to condemn the growing vigilance of the public, asserting that journalists and the media are now under constant scrutiny. She also takes issue with Carol Wainio, a University of Ottawa professor and editor of the Media Culpa blog dedicated to exposing what she sees as errors in the media. Wente claims that she is persecuted by this blog, calling it nothing more than an “obsessive” list of accusations of plagiarism and factual errors (Wente 2012).
Without getting into the details of this particular story, which some have referred to as Wentegate (Alzner 2012), it is easy to grasp the magnitude of citizen vigilance as voiced in social media networks, blogs, and other Internet forums. Wente’s case is not unique – Rathergate was likely the first warning shot of growing citizen vigilance on social media networks, which at the time were only just emerging. Another example is that of the Chicago Tribune journalist fired for making up sources in his news story; professional misconduct that was quickly reported in the blogosphere (Levy 2012).
These cases are more than mere anecdotes. They reveal a trend that has been acknowledged and addressed in many countries, namely, that the public has taken up the role of criticizing the news media and journalism practices. There was a time when the press was the sole gatekeeper of public discourse, especially for matters where it was concerned, but this is no longer the case. Gone are the days when public criticism of the media could only seldom be heard in the public sphere, a space unavoidably guarded by journalists. Until recently, the media organizations set the agenda. They were the ones who selected which issues were up for discussion and which critical voices could be heard. They used to enjoy a monopoly of sorts with the self-regulatory mechanisms they created (press councils, ombudsman, and press mediators). However, the effectiveness, independence and credibility of these measures are often questioned in a number of countries.
The Internet and the interactions made possible by social media have opened the floodgates to public media criticism. Whether or not the criticism is relevant or valid is another debate, but the role played by ordinary citizens as standards setters is not to be ignored and is bound to reach unprecedented significance. The media can no longer claim its self-regulatory measures are adequate to ensure the quality and integrity of information, since citizens are so quick to point out its shortcomings. Citizens must now be considered as media’s co-regulators.
Media and journalists claim to serve the public’s right to information and expect the highest degree of freedom to achieve this end. Journalists’ social legitimacy depends on an implicit social contract between themselves and civil society, whereby they are granted certain rights and responsibilities. This also justifies the creation of accountability measures to ensure that the responsibilities are accepted in compliance with the terms of the social contract (Bernier 1995).
This contract is based on three principles, namely; representation, responsibility, and accountability. Representation hinges on the notion that journalists act on behalf of citizens (journalists act in citizens’ interest; they ask questions and seek information on their behalf, etc.); responsibility, that journalists are responsible in the use of their freedoms and privileges (professional codes of ethics set out their responsibilities and obligations in order to ensure the quality of the information gathered on the behalf of citizens); and accountability, that they have an obligation to account for their behaviour (to the courts, press councils, the public, the profession, etc.). These values and others governing media and journalistic practices are laid out in numerous codes of ethics and professional practices, which also discusses key principles such as serving the public interest (as opposed to personal interests), rigor in research methods and a duty to the truth, accuracy, fairness and balance in news-gathering and coverage, impartiality in the reporting of events, integrity with respect to attribution of sources and avoidance of conflicts of interest that could potentially undermine journalist impartiality (Bernier 2004).
Generally speaking, accountability, or the obligation to be called “to account”, occurs when an actor is required to answer for the way in which he or she has, or has not, fulfilled his or her responsibilities. As Mulgan points out (2003), it is similar to the agent who provides an account to his or her principal; he further states that it commonly arises when power is delegated to individuals and institutions with the expectation that they act in the public’s interest. In some ways, this relates to the notion of representation in the context of an implicit social contract between the media and citizens. Mulgan adds that, given human nature, it may seem inevitable that this delegated power be used to the detriment of citizens, just as in economics the agent can sometimes act against the interests of the principal. He states that the demand for accountability has increased following the social movements of the 1970s (e.g., the consumer protection movement, environmentalism, feminism, etc.). This growing demand appears to be a symptom of mounting public discontent with individuals and institutions (governments, businesses, religions, etc.) mandated to serve the public interest, but which refuse to respond to the public’s questions or demands. Individuals thus perceive a gulf between themselves and these institutions. The same analysis may be applied to the news media, explaining why it is the object of mounting criticism.
According to many authors, media accountability is achieved primarily through transparency in journalistic procedures and objectives. Accountability can thus be enacted at three different moments: 1) before news production starts, it focuses on transparency in the practices of actors such as journalists and news organizations (e.g., the declaration of their interests and their adherence to professional standards as laid out in a code of ethics); 2) during news production, it comes into play in the transparency of news gathering procedures (e.g., identification of sources, appropriateness of the methods used to obtain information, etc.); 3) after news production, accountability is then manifested as responsiveness and involves openness to corrections, clarifications, additions, user’s comments, etc. (Domingo and Heikkila 2011).
This brief overview of the notion of accountability, while by no means exhaustive, underscores some of its key dimensions: accountable for what, accountable to whom, accountable how (Mulgan 2003)?
While accountability in the media is an inherent part of its legal obligations, it also belongs to an area of social responsibility governed by ethics and professional practices. These standards are laid out in charters of professional conduct and codes of ethics that reflect the particular traditions of the society that created them. These texts discuss social responsibility in the same terms as those identified by the Hutchins Commission (accountable for what?): to provide a complete and truthful account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning; to serve as a forum for comment and criticism; to present and clarify the goals and values of a society; and lastly, to give the public a clear picture of what is going on (Lambeth 1986).
Most authors agree that the Hutchins Commission, in 1947, played a key role in determining the functions of a “free and responsible press”. The Commission did not invent the social responsibility theory that would subsequently govern the operations of the press, as the subject had been addressed in previous writings, but it legitimized it and made it the manifest purpose of the news media.
But while media organizations and journalists claim that they should be accountable to the public (to whom?), many commentators believe that their primary responsibility is really to media shareholders and owners. In a free market economy that favours profit maximization, it should come as no surprise that conflict might arise between the public interest and that of owners and shareholders, leading sometimes to the prevalence of market-driven journalism over public interest (McManus 1992, 2008).
As to the question of which measures to employ (accountable how?), when faced with the choice of regulatory measures both media organizations and journalists have nearly always chosen self-regulation. Self-regulation most often involves mechanisms such as press councils, news ombudsmen and press mediators, the development of standards frameworks, etc. These measures almost always lack the power to impose any sanction other than moral opprobrium. Moreover, significant confusion can arise in a profession that both regulates itself and enacts its own disciplinary measures. In fact, while journalists and media organizations seem to agree upon the values and standards that should govern their behaviour, they are not always capable of ensuring that these are followed. It is even more difficult, if not impossible, for journalists and news organizations to create the legal mechanisms that would ensure that victims receive compensation for damages when standards are violated (Bernier 2009).
We might add that the choice of self-regulation has rarely, if ever, been voluntary. In most cases media organizations have been forced to create these mechanisms (e.g., press councils, news ombudsmen, mediators), to protect themselves against government intervention, often brought about by public outcry over professional misconduct (Bernier 2005, Media Standard Trust 2008, O'Malley and Soley 2000, Husselbee 1999, Prichard 1991, Ugland 2008, Unesco 2001, Bertrand 2008). This situation occurred recently in Great Britain, where the government established the Leveson Inquiry in 2011 to investigate the culture, the practices and the ethics of the press in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal (Watson and Hickman 2012). In November 2012, the Inquiry recommended the creation of a statutory press council that would have the power to conduct inquiries and impose significant monetary sanctions. The affair prompted other countries to evaluate the effectiveness and independence of their respective self-regulation mechanisms; in Australia, for instance, similar problems and oversight gaps were found, leading to recommendations for reform (Finkelstein 2012). Moreover, Hrvatin states that the very principle of self-regulation hinges on voluntary compliance and that any “self-regulation system should always be open to the possibility of non-compliance” (2003, 82) [translation]. This option is tantamount to giving news organizations and journalists veto power over citizens’ basic rights.
Claude-Jean Bertrand, a fervent supporter of self-regulation, has, at the end of his life, spoken out critically regarding the effectiveness of press councils in the wake of one of their most recent public decisions. Stating that while he is discouraged by the criticism sometimes heaped on press councils, he adds that, unfortunately, it was partly justified (Bertrand 2008, 115).
As yet, there is no evidence to indicate that self-regulation mechanisms have yielded the expected results; that they have really helped improve the quality of information and protect the public from unacceptable journalism practices. In this sense we have to admit that self-regulation has failed to live up to our expectations, that as attractive as the idea may seem, it simply doesn’t work. Its efficacy and credibility depend on the co-operation of news organizations insofar as they are the ones who pay for and publish the decisions – a fanciful illusion indeed (Watson 2008, 54). Furthermore, in recent years some of the press councils in Canada (Manitoba) and the United States (Minnesota) have disappeared, along with the ombudsman for the Washington Post in February, 2013.
According to Watson (2008, 63), since journalists themselves have proven to be incapable of implementing effective self-regulatory measures, it was inevitable that other institutions or mechanisms, especially the civil courts, take their place despite the risk that standards from outside the profession might be applied to journalists. For the present, his analysis indicates that the United States’ Supreme Court decisions (1947-2007) have applied a considerable number of the principles and concepts proposed by the Hutchins Commission, that is, standards proper to the field of journalism. Since 1994, in Quebec and the rest of Canada we have seen the application of journalism ethics and standards by the civil courts in several cases involving the media (Bernier 2011).
According to Gunningham and Rees (1997), two factors are essential to the success of media self-regulation: first, there must be a high degree of compatibility between the public interest and the private interests of the media; second, there must be sufficient external pressure to create this compatibility. The mere presence of such pressures, such as those placed on British journalists in the fall of 2012 following the Leveson Inquiry, is to some degree a refutation of voluntary self-regulation and might even be considered a variation of models of co-regulation.
There appears to be a growing consensus, then, that self-regulation has had its day. For this reason, increased attention has been focused on models of co-regulation.
Co-regulation is incompatible with the sort of absolutist position held by advocates of unlimited freedom of expression, chief among them the libertarian free-market worshippers and US First Amendment fundamentalists. It is likewise not accepted by those favouring hybrid regulation models that would rely solely on civil and criminal law and public and government institutions. It is a response to the failure of media self-regulation, even though it may not be a cure-all for the many problems afflicting the media.
In Australia, the report published by the Finkelstein Inquiry (2012) devotes an entire chapter to theories of media regulation. Generally conceived as the imposition of rules or principles in order to influence behaviours, it attempts to anticipate market deficiencies and pursue equitable social ends (to reduce or manage the risk of damages to an individual’s or a community’s health, security or well-being). These are the two main justifications for regulation. All regulatory intervention should nonetheless be subject to a cost-benefit analysis to ascertain whether the benefits would indeed prevail, as this cannot simply be presumed. The report distinguishes between statutory or government regulation (command and control regulation) and self-regulation (sometimes known as consensus regulation). According to this model, regulation should be seen on a continuum that ranges from full self-regulation to full government regulation, with a range of co-regulation possibilities (hybrid regulation or enforced self-regulation) falling somewhere between the two extremes. This continuum could be more or less detailed and would, in some cases, include education and information or quasi regulation when it is the government’s goal to influence or persuade organizations to act in a certain fashion. What we have, then, is a continuum that might look like the following:
Co-regulation occurs when rules are developed, managed and enforced by associations, agencies or institutions with varying degrees of government or non-government involvement. One type of co-regulation involving a minimal amount of government intervention would thus be situated on the continuum next to self-regulation. Co-regulation may also entail the delegation of regulatory and enforcement powers, as is the case in Canada with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC), which assists in the application of broadcast standards, in accordance with regulations established by the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
At the moment, most attempts at a definition suggest that co-regulation represents a variety of bodies with different make-ups ranging from traditional state regulation to unfettered self-regulation. These models offer a range of more or less formal measures designed to supplement self-regulatory shortcomings or free market imbalances. Traditionally, co-regulation has meant significant involvement of the State or its institutions. But with the Internet and, in particular, it’s potential for stirring debate and opposition to established powers (Strangelove 2005), new actors are gaining prominence.
The rise of the Fifth estate
Historically, if media self-regulatory measures have been suggested and implemented, it is because the news media have held a quasi monopoly on access to the public arena. This has placed a moral obligation on them to contribute to the very debate that concerns them.
In the old media order, citizens had only limited access to the public arena, enabled for the most part through existing media forums (e.g., airtime, comments or open letters to newspapers, etc.). Their messages could be easily overlooked or filtered out based on a given set of journalistic criteria (Ericson, Baraneck and Chan 1987). Research suggests that journalists have routinely shown a preference for certain official or institutional sources, while at the same time showing indifference, or sometimes hostility, toward their audience, as a means of asserting their professional autonomy (Williams, Wardle and Wahl-Jorgensen 2011).
With the Internet and Web 2.0, citizens have spontaneously taken on the role of the Fifth estate, scrutinizing, criticizing, even hurling abuse at the Fourth estate, understood traditionally as the media and journalists. But we shouldn’t be surprised at the public’s sudden takeover as guardians of the “watchdogs of democracy”. There is ample evidence to show that for decades citizens have had a very different notion of what constitutes news than the one proposed by journalists and the media. Many studies have documented the gap, oftentimes a gulf, separating the editorial judgment of the public and that of journalists (Tsafi, Meyers and Peri 2006, Tai and Chang 2002, Voakes 1997) on different issues concerning the private life of public figures and officials, for example, or whether the public expects the media to play the role of “good neighbour” or the role of “watchdog” (Poindexter, Heider and McCombs 2006). Admittedly, we may want to apply a degree of scepticism to the noble, socially responsible answers the public give to certain questions, answers that have little to do with real-life consumption patterns (Roshier 1981, Missika 1989). But, all the same, can we afford to ignore them? Especially when it is our manifest purpose to serve the public’s right to information.
Perhaps a better definition of the Fifth estate would serve us here. Does it refer to capitalism and finance (Ramonet 1995), or to public relations (Franklin and Carlson 2011, 11)? Or might it even be understood as those citizens who find a place for themselves in the public and media outlets through social media networks made possible by Web 2.0’s interactive technologies? This being the case, might we suggest that the digitally networked public join together with the Fourth estate in its role as the watchdog of democracy and public institutions (e.g., the courts, parliament, etc.), at the same time as it remains watchdog to that same Fourth estate?
To put it more formally, what good is power that is capable only of expressing itself, albeit loudly and clearly, without the ability to compel others to act? The power to influence? The power of opinion, it has been proven time and again, cannot be ignored, by either the government (the electorate), or media organizations (the market). While the answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this paper, they certainly point the way to lines of research worth pursuing.
Ramonet appears to be the first to bring up the concept of the Fifth estate, without further elaboration, by working it into a critical theory wherein the media are perceived as a Fourth estate that is viewed to have betrayed its democratic mission. He later mentions a Fifth estate “whose function would be to denounce the media superpowers, those large media conglomerates, aiders and abetters” of what he calls a “neoliberal globalisation” [“globalisation libérale”] (Ramonet 2003).
According to Ramonet, information is as polluted as our air and water, and as contaminated as our food is by the chemicals used in industry. In order to get “organic” information, he says, “citizens must come together and demand that the large, globalized media respect the truth, because only in the search for the truth is information made legitimate” (2003). Rather than depend on social media networks (which were only just emerging in 2003), Ramonet advocated for an international media oversight body and founded Media Watch Global, “because the media today are the only power that can still go unchecked, which leads to an imbalance that can be harmful to democracy” (2003). Regarding the character of the organization he adds that “the strength of this association is moral first and foremost: its power to reprimand is based on ethics, and it sanctions dishonest media practices through the reports and studies it carries out, publishes and disseminates” (2003) [translation]. This arrangement would comprise journalists, scholars, and citizens alike. What Ramonet is describing is in effect a world press council.
Spontaneous, made-to-order co-regulation
Ramonet appeared to be positing the establishment of a mechanism typical of the old media order. He nevertheless showed a commitment to a democratic form of co-regulation designed to supplement the media’s own self-regulatory shortcomings. One might well be sceptical as to the feasibility of such a mechanism on an international scale. But its function as monitor and critic might increase tenfold by spontaneous co-regulation – due to its disorganized, dispersed, unexpected and voluntary nature – inasmuch as it provides made-to-order co-regulation as individuals provide critical points of view that vary according to their own interests or political, ideological, moral or religious convictions, to name only the most obvious motives. Criticism from an expert or academic viewpoint would then appear in the same arena as selective, biased, partial, partisan, ignorant or malicious criticism, which does not detract from the ability of either to influence the behaviours and practices of the media and journalists, as we saw with Wentegate.
Journalists and media observers and researchers over the world continue to focus their attention on the power exerted by ordinary citizens as more or less influential sources of information (De Keyser, Raeymarckers and Paulussen 2011), content generators or amateur journalists. However, the growing and continuous flow of user-generated criticism is not reserved solely for the media; it also extends to the political and financial elite. This role of monitoring the watchdogs of democracy had traditionally been carried out exclusively by various groups, institutions (e.g., the courts, unions, educational institutions and research institutes, etc.) and professional regulatory bodies (e.g., press councils, ombudsmen, etc.).
Bodies such as these, by their very organizational, collective nature, were largely predictable by media actors. If ordinary citizens wanted to show an interest in media or journalism, precious little space was available to them. However, since the mid 1990s the public has been able to express its opinion via online discussion boards or dedicated sites; since 2000 these sites have become even more visible due to the tools available on Web 2.0 (e.g., blogs, interactive media, comments posted on social media networks, Facebook, Twitter and other emerging forums).
As media criticism is democratized, it bypasses filters and rules designed to moderate it; it can be condensed and go viral (e.g., on Twitter), or receive more thorough treatment on blogs and Facebook, etc. The Fourth estate is increasingly being confronted by the public it has always professed to represent, and is being forced to assert its social and political legitimacy, to defend its idea of freedom of the press and, it must be admitted, to defend its economic interests. This can be seen as a form of market sanction (Fengler 2012) that has been able to emerge from an imposed state of latency.
According to Jarvis (2007), all Internet users and journalists should be considered ombudsmen. In such an arrangement, contact with the public is no longer reserved for only one person (e.g., the ombudsman, press mediators, etc.). Rather, journalists receive comments, corrections, information and clarification directly from the public. This, many believe, would help improve the quality of information. Moreover, journalism research has underscored the role of citizen journalists as news media curators, particularly when the quality of journalism is lacking (Bruns 2011). In this regard, Phillips (2011) has documented many occasions when citizens have found factual errors or instances of plagiarism.
De Haan (2011) reports that in the Netherlands there is a public demand for greater media accountability, despite market liberalization and increasingly limited State involvement, a situation that has prompted the media to make certain changes. He adds that in Europe, different organizations advocate media literacy, which results in citizens who are more informed and responsible in their media choices. In France, the issue of public intervention in the media was addressed during the États généraux de la presse de 2009, where the implementation of a new rule was recommended: “Journalists must be mindful of the public’s criticism and suggestions. They will take them into account when considering their own journalistic practices” (Ruellan 2011, 38-39) [translation].
Rosen believes it imperative that journalists raise their standards of reliability given that errors today have more serious consequences than in the past, for themselves, their profession and others. The consequences are also more apparent due to the increased oversight made possible by the dramatic rise in number of information and comment platforms (reported by Carlson 2011). Fengler (2008) has observed that most bloggers who follow the US media consider themselves media watchdogs and are highly motivated to criticize, to such a degree that many readily subscribe to conspiracy theories to explain the behaviours of journalists who show political bias. Olav Anders Øvrebø (2008) also notes that this new form of external criticism often tends to take the form of exaggerated accusations from individuals not burdened by the same sourcing standards, providing fodder for some journalists who use this argument to discredit any form of criticism. Even so, in Germany, a study involving 20 000 users of a media criticism blog revealed that 84 per cent of the participants stated that entertainment was their primary reason for using the site (Fengler 2012, 186). It would be wise therefore, not to conceptualize users purely as public-minded “citizens”, without, however, denying the existence of “noble” motivations.
Some authors believe that the interactive nature of the Internet and emerging media networks constitute a new form of accountability that may be distinguished from traditional mechanisms. It is thought to be more direct and effective than the traditional institutions (Domingo and Heikkila 2011) as well as less expensive (Fengler 2012). They add that online criticism (e.g., blogs, Facebook pages, Internet sites) can sometimes force the media to correct errors, sanction journalists and, in some cases, encourage individuals to take their complaints to press councils, thus hybridizing both newer and traditional forms of accountability.
The rise in power of the Fifth estate as spontaneous media co-regulators comes at a time when traditional self-regulation measures are facing a crisis in terms of their credibility and their very legitimacy. The old media order is on the verge of being replaced by a new order, or rather a disorder, capable of having greater effect and impact. Granted, although we cannot guarantee the intellectual integrity or the honesty of every citizen, the same objection can be made of professional journalists, who are not, as a group, to be held above suspicion. In this new order we are consigned to a sort of grey area of doubt, but we need not accept the corporatist objection put forth by journalists.
Media organizations and journalists cannot ignore citizen vigilance, even when the criticism is excessive, partial or based on standards and considerations other than those recognized in professional charters and codes of ethics. Journalists and the media have no choice but to join the critical debate, not only to engage in a real conversation with the public in order to understand them, but also to consent to having their professional missteps pointed out whenever these occur. We can even imagine falling back on some of the traditional accountability mechanisms such as press councils, ombudsmen and press mediators in order to guide debate and give journalists the opportunity to have their motivations understood. One thing is certain, however: in the new media ecosystem, the traditional measures have lost any claim they might have had to effective self-regulation and self-discipline. From now on they will be but one voice among many.
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 This research was made possible by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The author would like to thank Lisa Hannaford-Wong, who performed the French-to-English translation of this study.
 In September 2004, with two months remaining in the American presidential campaign, CBS aired a report on 60 Minutes. Presented by renowned news anchor Dan Rather, the report claimed to reveal details about George W. Bush’s inglorious military past, relying on a document supposedly dating back to the 1970s. However, citizens quickly reacted online, denouncing the document as a fake. CBS investigated, recognized the error, and a few months later, Dan Rather resigned. This unprecedented event marking the rise of fifth estate is now referred to as Rathergate.