Last November 2007, CommGAP organized a workshop entitled Generating Genuine Demand with Social Accountability Mechanisms in Paris, France. Since then, we have been reflecting on the word “accountability” and what it really means in the work of governance. I recently recalled that Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson defines the term in the context of political campaigns as candidates (and I would add officials and elites in other public settings) speaking in their own voices, thus keeping themselves open to challenge and criticism. Simply put, the essence of accountability in political discourse is being answerable to others for what one says in public.
The other side of the accountability equation is whether citizens demand accountability from their leaders and, if not, how they might be encouraged to do so. This is tricky because the public is usually not as organized as elites. There exists, therefore, an accountability gap that must be bridged. The news media -- if one accepts their watchdog function -- should fill this gap by scrutinizing public statements and making discrepancies known to the public. However, modern newsrooms in many countries, due to practical constraints and established work routines, do not have the in-house capacity to examine public statements to the degree that I believe accountability requires. Investigative journalists may be exceptions because they have more time to pore over documents and dissect public statements. They are exceptions that prove the rule. The mainstream news media are dominated by organizations that, in the case of dailies, are constantly chasing after the proverbial 4 pm deadline. Broadcasters and online journalists on the ceaseless 24 hour news cycle have it even worse.
So who else can do the scrutinizing? One possible answer is the blogosphere. There are many examples of bloggers setting right what journalists initially get wrong. But blogging, writ large, lacks an editorial function. Aren’t most bloggers, practically speaking, only accountable to themselves? For example, I’m not double-sourcing anything that I’m writing here.
That said, there are innovative models of harnessing the raw power of citizen participation through editorial restraint, such as South Korea’s OhMyNews. Under this particular model, both professional and citizen journalists write the news, and professional staff provide editorial review. An alternative model is bringing to bear the skills of academically trained researchers. In the U.S., the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania (headed by Dr. Jamieson) runs a website called Factcheck.org that helps the citizenry at large, and the journalism community especially, separate fact from falsehood by deeply scrutinizing public statements made by political elites. In fact (pun intended), Time Magazine named Factcheck.org as one of “25 Sites We Can’t Live Without” in 2006 and the Webby Awards honored it as the best political and government website in the 2007 People’s Voice vote.
In case you haven't had the chance, please have a look at OhMyNews (http://english.ohmynews.com/) and Factcheck.org (http://www.factcheck.org/). Do you think these models of citizen journalism and public scrutiny measure up to the demands of accountability? If so, are these models developed in rich countries applicable to developing country contexts? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.