Specifics of the legal and ethics domain under WP1: transcript of the podcast episode #3

Mediadelcom podcasts started to introduce in more detail the domains, which as the hypothesis suggests create the most of risks and opportunities for media. These domains are: legal and ethical, journalism, media competencies, media usage patterns.

Podcast episode #3 provided some insights into the legal-ethical domain.

Contributors of the Podcast #3. Snapshot from the Teams screen.

Prof. Halliki Harro-Loit, the Mediadelcom project coordinator, provided the general introduction into the particular domain saying:

The legal and ethical domain provides a normative frame for the other domains of journalism, media usage and competency. It’s also true that legal regulation and the accountability system have both been described by previous research teams. Still, this domain is important for the risk analysis, especially because we have to check first if there is a legal basis for deliberative communication. And then, of course, it’s more even more important how the legal regulation is implemented in national contexts.

Marcus Kreutler from the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany, has been working on the aspects and variables for the accountability (largely self-regulation) topic, for which he provided an abstract:

Our domain of regulation on the whole is concerned with what the media and what journalists can or should do. This concerns mainly two questions. First, what can be published, in legal terms, that would be a freedom of expression. And second, how to gather the material to be published, in legal terms, that is freedom of information.

Liberal constitutions try not to interfere with what can be said or what can be published for very good reasons. And there are only few exceptions defined by law. But that doesn’t mean that everything else is acceptable or helpful for the society or from the perspective of media ethics. And this is where media accountability actually comes into play. We are looking at non-state mechanisms that try to hold the media accountable to society, which they are supposed to work for.

Ideally, media accountability is filling that relatively huge space that is free of legal regulation. But it can also be seen as a step ahead to avoid legal interference. When media accountability instruments are working, legal action in that field is simply unnecessary. That leaves a kind of freedom that is actually desirable. If we’re looking at it historically, institutions like voluntary press councils or ombudsmen were often an attempt to prevent external legal interference. These statutory institutions or state institutions could govern what the media are supposed to do. So it can be a way to safeguard the autonomy of the media. It doesn’t mean that the reel of journalism or media ethics is necessarily narrower on Twitter than the legal framework is. To give you an example, journalism ethics demand that journalistic sources are protected by the journalists. But penal laws, on the other hand, might require to identify these sources.

The mechanisms of media accountability differ in each country context. So this is an important area of research within the Mediadelcom project. What we are trying to do here is to look at both agents within but also outside journalism to get a complete picture. So if we are looking at media accountability mechanisms, from a very narrow point of view, we are basically concentrating on journalistic agents and mechanisms that are in place inside journalism. But of course, the picture can be broadened to have a look at other agents who also play a role here.

If you think of some countries, particularly in Northern Europe where we have a very highly institutionalized framework of media self-regulation, of media accountability, we are quickly thinking of press councils, or established codes of ethics or ombudsmen that work either for the industry as a whole or for single media houses.

But there could be other means as well. Aspects like media-critical coverage, both inside journalism, but also outside journalism that play an important role. The risk really lies in the mixture of mechanisms in daily action. If you think of press councils again, a council to deal with audience complaints was introduced pretty early in the United Kingdom, for example, but it failed to be very stable in the long run. So other mechanisms could really come into play.

The Greek team from ELIAMEP has been working on the legal variables. Anna Kandyla spoke about these considerations.

For identifying risks and opportunities for deliberative communication in the legal domain, we have chosen to follow the fundamental rights perspective. Fundamental rights do provide the necessary basis for the democratic process for citizens to be able to take part in decision-making to exercise control over it in democracies. Fundamental rights provide some consistency, when it comes to approaching various legal areas.

Within the framework of the Mediadelcom project, we have decided to take free speech as the backbone, but to dissect the freedom to freely express opinions from the right to seek, receive and impart information. We single out freedom of expression as the first conceptual variable in the study of the legal domain, and freedom of information as the second. Freedom of expression will be covered through a set of operational variables that we are developing, aspects that are related to the freedom to express ideas, views and opinions. Freedom of information – this conceptual variable will focus on elements specifically related to access to public information.

We will base assessing risk and opportunities on two criteria. The first is the existence of regulatory safeguards that create an enabling environment for the exercise of each of these freedoms in the countries covered by our project. And so we’re not merely interested in the formal existence of particular provisions but whether these provisions are really creating conditions for exercising these freedoms. And of course, international codes and conventions and other standards of good practice are relevant for forming this evaluation.

Still, assessing risks and opportunities is not just a matter of evaluating the relevant legal codes. Sometimes we have them looking good on paper but, in practice, they are not enforced. Thus, the implementation of the rule of law has important implications for freedoms of expression and information. Hence, our second criterion focuses on the effective application of rules and standards. In assessing risks and opportunities, we try to take both dimensions into account, and see how they interact and what the end result would be.

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Podcast transcription: what is deliberative communication?

Prof. Daniel Hallin (USA)
Prof. Lars Nord (Sweden)

This piece provides the reflections on ‘deliberative communication’ by professor Lars Nord (Sweden) and professor Daniel Hallin (USA) who addressed the topic on the MEDIADELCOM kick-off meeting and also in the MEDIADELCOM’s podcast episode No. 2. Subsequently, we present their talk in writing.

The acronymic name MEDIADELCOM stands for media deliberative communication. In the last podcast episode, we disclosed the concept behind that expression. This is the core concept of the entire research.

The kick-off meeting was held last week, which set the sails for the Horizon 2020 research project for the next three years. Over the Teams communication platform, the inceptive discussions took place for four days. One of the first ideas there to be defined was ‘deliberative communication’.

Lars Nord, professor in Political Communication at the Mid-Sweden University, elaborated the notion of deliberative communication in the context of MEDIADELCOM research at the kick-off meeting. He also made a brief popular overview at the key tack of the project for the podcast.

He said, “As this project deals with media related risks and opportunities for deliberative communication, I think it is very important to ask ourselves what we mean by deliberative communication. I think it is a core concept of the whole project and needs some reflection.

An analogy to explain the project is ‘democracy’. All the countries each one has free and fair elections. People are voting for ‘their’ parties, and then get governments based on the results of the election. This is, of course, a key sign of democracy.

However, when you are talking about democracy with communication using the adjective deliberative for both, you not only take into account the voting process. But also the reasoning. And the arguing about different ideas, and about some of the great theories on deliberative democracy and communication. They suggest that you don’t only participate in voting, but you are also meeting other people for conversations about what is going on in the society. You have equal access to these public arenas, where you can discuss societal topics. And, you’re there for your own interest, not representing other of society’s interests or pressure groups. Such conversations really witness both working deliberative communication and deliberative democracy.

So in my view, these very high demands on such democracies mean that in reality, you probably won’t find any country in the world today to meet all these standards. But on the other hand, I think it’s realistic to say that this is a goal to strive for. You should try to become more deliberative in democracy, because it really improves its quality.

The media probably plays a great role here. If media only reports about political alternatives, and about political candidates, and mirrors the political conflicts in society, media do not really meet standards of deliberative communication. You should also expect the media to provide access to the arenas for the people on equal terms. You should ask media to encourage public discussions about current events. So you demand much more of the medium within this deliberative communication framework.

I think our project is very interesting in this aspect that, of course, we don’t expect to find the perfect democracy among the involved countries. But we will certainly try to identify what media processes actually improve deliberative communication and what risks there are for reaching it. Thus, we are not looking for an example that deliberative communication actually exists in. But we would like to map the conditions across countries and the possibilities for going in the direction of deliberative communication. I think that would be one of the biggest benefits of this project.”

On the third day of the kick-off meeting, MEDIADELCOM’s advisory board spoke up. One of the distinguished members on the board is Daniel Hallin, Professor in Communication at the University of California at San Diego. In his video address to the consortium, inter alia, he briefly provided the American perspective to the issue.

He said, “We had an extraordinary last year with the pandemic, the black lives matter protests and general social mobilization over issues of racism and the attempt by Trump to overturn the electoral process following his defeat. All these historic events produced a tremendous amount of discussion over the role of journalism.

One of my best-known contributions to the study of deliberative communication, the one that was referenced frequently during the discussions of the last year, is my schema of the three spheres of news, the spheres of Consensus, Legitimate Controversy and Deviance. It is most often interpreted in the form of an argument that the sphere of Legitimate Controversy is too narrow, and excludes too many points of view. And this is often indeed an important problem. But with the crises of last year, I think we can see more clearly that the sphere of consensus and the forms of journalism that contribute to building it, are actually very important: it is very important that society be able to reach consensus on certain kinds of issues—on a scientifically based response to the pandemic or the climate crisis; on the rejection of racism; on the rules of the game of democratic politics.

It is also legitimate that there are boundaries to the sphere of Legitimate Controversy, which become deeply problematic when powerful political actors refuse to respect them. And for journalists, it is not clear that just reporting the news accurately in the traditional way is an adequate response to the kinds of threats to deliberative communication we face today – in the US, there is a lot of interesting debate going on now about the meaning of “objectivity”, which, of course, has for so long been central to American journalistic professionalism and journalists are really rethinking that.

I would add finally here that, although there is a lot of reflection going on within journalism, I think that journalists themselves cannot solve the problems that we currently face. We have to understand their role within the whole context of what is going on in the political system.”

The 4-day kick-off meeting officially launched the project into three years of research. As a result, we will hear much more findings related to ‘deliberative communications’. Our website will consistently provide all of it, bit-by-bit.

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