In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. Congress, with allies in the news media, created legislation that came to be known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It was designed to help hold the federal executive accountable to the public. It became law in 1966. Its significance can be understood in several contexts: (1) in connection with a special relationship of journalists to the operation of the FOIA; (2) in terms of arguments that transparency in government is necessary for citizens’ informed participation in democracy and that, on the other side, there are strong democratic arguments that transparency should be limited in the pursuit of other legitimate values, some of them recognized in the language of the FOIA itself that government agencies may deny a citizen's request for information on the grounds that honoring the request could endanger national security, personal privacy, the integrity of internal government deliberations, or other significant objectives; and (3) that freedom of information law are one institution within a wider web of institutions and practices dedicated to holding government accountable. In this regard, the U.S. Freedom of Information Act can also be seen in a broad context of a cultural shift toward “openness” and a political shift toward what has been called a “monitory” model of democracy.
In the past decade, academic and professional debates about media accountability have spread around the globe – but have done so in a fundamentally different framework. In many Western democracies, trust in media – along with trust in politics and trust in institutions – as eroded dramatically. Fundamental shifts regarding the patterns of media use and the structure of media and revenue markets have made media and journalism more exposed to criticism from various stakeholders, and more vulnerable to the strategic influence of national and international actors. While many “Western” media professionals have reacted to these challenges to its credibility by new initiatives to demonstrate accountability and transparency, policy makers in other countries even in the “Global North” have tightened their grip on independent media and gradually weakened the concept of self-control. At the same time, an ongoing democratization in many parts of the world, along with a de-regulation of media markets, has created a growing demand for self-regulation and media accountability in countries formerly characterized by rigid press control. Claude-Jean Bertrand defined the development and current structures of accountability in journalism as “any non-State means of making media responsible towards the public.” Key aims of media accountability are “to improve the services of the media to the public; restore the prestige of media in the eyes of the population; diversely protect freedom of speech and press; obtain, for the profession, the autonomy that it needs to play its part in the expansion of democracy and the betterment of the fate of mankind.” Journalists and news outlets have a wide array of responses to professional, public, and political criticisms via press councils, ombudsmen, media criticism, and digital forms of media accountability, while online and offline media accountability instruments have distinct traditions in different media systems and journalism cultures.
Algorithms today influence, to some extent, nearly every aspect of journalism, from the initial stages of news production to the latter stages of news consumption. While they may be seen as technical objects with certain material characteristics, algorithms are also social constructions that carry multiple meanings. Algorithms are neither valueless nor do they exist in isolation; they are part of algorithmic assemblages that include myriad actors, actants, activities, and audiences. As such, they are imbued with logics that are only sometimes reflective of journalism’s. Algorithms have played an active role in a broader quantitative turn within journalism that began in the 1970s but rapidly accelerated after the turn of the century. They are already used to produce hundreds of thousands of articles per year through automated journalism and are employed throughout the many stages of human-driven newswork. Additionally, algorithms enable audience analytics, which are used to quantify audiences into measures that are increasingly influencing news production through the abstractions they promote. Traditional theoretical models of newswork like gatekeeping are thus being challenged by the proliferation of algorithms. A trend toward algorithmically enabled personalization is also leading to the development of responsive distribution and curated flows. This is resulting in a marked shift from journalism’s traditional focus on shared importance and toward highly individualized experiences, which has implications for the formation of publics and media effects. In particular, the proliferation of algorithms has been linked to the development of filter bubbles and evolution of algorithmic reality construction that can be gamed to spread misinformation and disinformation. Scholars have also observed important challenges associated with the study of algorithms and in particular the opaque nature of key algorithms that govern a range of news-related processes. The combination of a lack of transparency with the complexity and adaptability of algorithmic mechanisms and systems makes it difficult to promote algorithmic accountability and to evaluate them vis-à-vis ethical models. There is, currently, no widely accepted code of ethics for the use of algorithms in journalism. Finally, while the body of literature at the intersection of algorithms and journalism has grown rapidly in recent years, it is still in its infancy. As such, there are still ample opportunities for typologizing algorithmic phenomena, tracing the lineage of algorithmic processes and the roles of digital intermediaries within systems, and empirically evaluating the prevalence of particular kinds of algorithms in journalistic spaces and the effects they exert on newswork.
Brenda L. Berkelaar and Millie A. Harrison
Information visibility refers to the degree to which information is available and accessible. Availability focuses on whether people could acquire particular information if they wanted. Accessibility focuses on the effort needed to acquire available information. In scholarly, industry, and popular press, people often conflate information visibility with transparency, yet transparency is generally a valued or ideological concept, whereas visibility is an empirical concept. Growing interest in studying and managing information visibility corresponds with the rapid growth in the use of digital, networked technologies. Yet, interest in information visibility existed prior to the introduction of networked information and communication technologies. Research has historically focused on information visibility as a form of social control and as a tool to increase individual, organizational, and social control and coordination. As a research area, information visibility ties to classic communication and interdisciplinary concerns, as well as core concerns of contemporary society including privacy, surveillance, transparency, accountability, democracy, secrecy, coordination, control, and efficiency. An emerging research area with deep historical roots, information visibility offers a promising avenue for future research.
Laura L. Stein and Lindita Camaj
Freedom of information (FOI; also known as right to information and access to information) laws around the world establish rights and procedures around access to public information. Normative assumptions examine what’s behind FOI legislation, including rationales stemming from human and political rights frameworks, participatory democratic theory, and transparency and accountability initiatives. Although the freedom of information concept first arose as part of 18th-century enlightenment thinking, recent FOI law took shape in the mid-20th century, influenced by post–World War II human rights treaties, incentives provided by transnational organizations and funders, and individual country support for access to government information. Today, the majority of the world’s countries have FOI laws, most of which were adopted after 1990. FOI laws commonly address who can request information, who must provide information, what information is accessible, what information must be proactively disclosed, and what information is exempted from the law. FOI laws also establish procedural rules around information requests, including mandated response times for requests, appeals processes for denied requests, penalties for improperly withholding information, processes fees, and government reports on the law’s usage. Only a small percentage of people make FOI requests in most nations. Although it varies from country to country, requests from specific groups, including private individuals, commercial businesses, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations, often predominate. FOI requests may be political, professional, or personal in nature, although many FOI laws prohibit governments from asking about or evaluating the reasons for an information request. The ability of FOI laws to provide effective access to information depends on several factors. These include how the laws are written, public awareness of FOI, the cooperation and compliance of government agencies and institutions, and broader political and social conditions affecting FOI implementation and use. Scholars have measured the effects of FOI laws in both quantitative and qualitative terms. While quantitative data yield a picture of who uses FOI laws and how frequently, qualitative and anecdotal data provide ample evidence that such laws have had a positive impact on individuals’ abilities to obtain and use public information. Finally, FOI laws are necessary, but not sufficient, mechanisms for producing more accountable governments. They are unlikely to accomplish government reform on their own, but they can help expose and reform democratic deficits and push governments toward broader democratic reforms.