Through a PRISM, darkly. Media and Accountability

July 17, 2013 • Specialist Journalism • by

We are used to the media turning on those who seek to expose corruption and malpractice. But it is shocking nonetheless how soon media companies, when presented with one of the biggest data scandals in world history- namely the news that the American National Security Agency was using data collected by Internet giants such as Apple and Facebook to spy, decided that the main story should in fact be the hunt for the whistleblower Edward Snowden who released the information in the first place.

The story of PRISM – the program through which the NSA keeps an eye on us all – is a story that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley wrote together. We are now under “Big Brother’s ” watch and we are, with bread and circuses, simply accepting the “Brave New World”that the digital media are creating for us.

The PRISM story also vindicates a less well known author: media researcher Ben Bagdikian who, in the 1980s, predicted a future where only a handful of media conglomerates would control the flow of information and news in the world. It seems as though he was right, though nowadays the “media monopoly” includes companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, all  passing “Go” and collecting cash at a far higher frequency than Bagdikian could’ve imagined. Not to mention the fact that he likely lacked the fantasy to imagine the American government’s swift transformation into a gamer itself, sucking and filtering the data piles of others and using them for their own intransparent purposes.

The way the media handled the PRISM story, leads once more to a discussion on media responsibility: how should the media communicate with the public, especially on subjects like privacy and data protection that are close to its heart, and who is to be held accountable if the media fails its duty to report on these matters impartially and fairly?

Such questions have been studied extensively as part of a large comparative research project involving 12 European and two Arab countries. The project and its main findings were recently presented in Brussels.

Susanne Fengler of Technical University in Dortmund led a team of researchers who interviewed 1762 journalists and worked to create representative samples in each participating country. Among the results presented, perhaps the least surprising, though most spectacular, was the tendency for media professionals to be as human as the rest. “Wash me, but don’t make me wet (“Wasch mir den Pelz, aber mach mich nicht nass”), is a German saying which characterizes the attitudes of many journalists. For example, in all of the countries included in the report, a large majority were strongly in favor of media accountability but when asked more precisely most preferred their “own conscience” over self-control institutions such as press councils, ombudsmen, or even bosses. Additionally, journalists were surprisingly honest, revealing that if there were ever a conflict between the two, they would feel a “full responsibility” towards their sources rather than towards their public. Only in Spain and Jordan were journalists likely to say their primary loyalty is to readers, listeners and viewers, as most official codes of practice say it ought to be.

The MediaAcT study has not been widely reported in the European media, except in the United Kingdom where the euro-sceptic Daily Telegraph newspaper continued its EU baiting by arguing that the report’s researchers were recommending that Brussels to curb press freedom in all EU countries. According to Gordon Neil Ramsey, Research Fellow from the Media Standards Trust, the British press does not handle media criticism gracefully. Ramsey’s view is formed from his recent content analysis in which he characterizes coverage of the Leveson Report and proposals of press regulation covered in 18 opinion-leading daily and Sunday newspapers in the U.K.

A self-regulating media system presents obvious challenges. How are distortions and false claims corrected? There are also however another set of problems: what is to be done when the media under-reports, or simply covers up, important news. The wider media were reluctant to pick up the Guardian’s PRISM story, until the newspaper provided step-by-step analysis and further reporting.

Several initiatives attempt to identify neglected issues in mainstream media – for example, “Project Censored” in the U.S. and its siblings, among them the “Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung” in Germany. But these initiatives tend themselves to be somewhat biased, usually taking a left wing view. And they tend to be neglected by the mainstream media.

Again we come to the age-old problem – the media, who demand so much transparency, openness and accountability in others, are reluctant to provide it themselves.

Disclaimer: The author of this column participated in the MediaAcT study as the Swiss project director.

This article was first published in the Neuer Zurcher Zeitung

Photo credit: Imaginary Museum Projects / Flickr CC


Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Boston: Beacon Press 1983

Susanne Fengler et al. (eds.), How Fragile is Media Accountability, MediaAcT Final Research Report 2013

Andrew Gilligan, EU pours millions into groups seeking state control of press, in: Daily Telegraph, April 14, 2013

Gordon Neil Ramsey, Press Coverage of Leveson, London: Media Standards Trust 2013


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