If thought about media accountability is hindered by a lack of conceptual clarity, as was suggested at the start of this article, then it is important to define the accountability process and to introduce a fairly precise vocabulary to describe its components.
Media accountability can be defined as the process by which news organizations or journalists are obliged to render an account of their activities to recognized constituencies such as audience members, news sources, advertisers, professional colleagues, or government regulatory bodies. An account is an explanation, or justification, of one's conduct. The process of media accountability is strongly influenced by the social, cultural, and political environment in which the news organization exists and in which an account is demanded. Underlying the notion of media accountability is the assumption that journalists and news organizations are more likely to behave in a manner that society would define as responsible if they know that they may be required to explain their behaviour.
A system of media accountability is centered around a set of principles that define (or at least delimit) responsible media behaviour. However, those principles, by themselves, do not fully describe a system of accountability, much less enable reform. As Thomas Emerson wrote about a normative system of a slightly different kind:
It is not enough merely to formulate the broad principles or simply to incorporate them in general rules of law. It is necessary to develop a framework of doctrines, practices, and institutions which will take into account the actual forces at work and make possible the realistic achievement of the objectives sought. (Emerson, 1970, p. 4)
In empirical terms, the media accountability process--the "actual forces at work," to use Emerson's phrase--is set in motion when a member of one of a news organization's recognized constituencies demands an account from the news organization. For example, a reader might be unhappy with the scant coverage a newspaper gives to famine in Africa, and might want to know why the newspaper doesn't do more. In a similar fashion, requests for explanations might come from a listener unhappy with the small amount of local news broadcast by a radio station, from a news source unhappy that a television station aired only 10 seconds of a 30-minute interview, from the owner of a tanning salon unhappy that a magazine published a story about skin cancer next to an advertisement for the tanning salon.
In each of the above cases, the constituent (e.g., a reader, listener, news source, advertiser) has named a problem with the news organization's performance and has blamed, at least implicitly, the news organization for failing to live up to the constituent's standards of responsibility (Pritchard, 1987).
The news organization's explanation for its behaviour may satisfy the constituent who called it to account. If not, however, the constituent may make a claim; e.g., may demand that the