June 12, 2018
The Accountability Ecosystem: Creating the Conditions for Independent Journalism to Thrive
Last year, ahead of Kenya’s presidential election, Reboot was in the country researching the state of its independent media and exploring new ways to strengthen journalism in the public interest. We spent time with dozens of journalists, media entrepreneurs, and others. Whenever our conversations turned to issues like “fake news” or government attacks on the legitimacy of the media—which was frequent—the Kenyan experts would look specifically at the two Americans on our team and say, “Now you know how it feels.”
It’s true: The media in the U.S. is facing many challenges today that our Kenyan counterparts have experienced for much longer. When President Trump claims the entire Russia investigation is a political fabrication by antagonistic media outlets, it’s reminiscent of a strategy used by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, elected in 2012, when he was facing charges from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged involvement in violence around the 2007 elections. After critical media coverage of the ICC trial, many of the journalists we spoke to felt that the Kenyatta administration had amped up targeting media because it blamed them for prolonging the trial. In this era of rising mistrust, both Kenyatta and Trump are trying to redirect public suspicion away from themselves and onto the media outlets that are scrutinizing their actions.
Threats to the media are not unique to the U.S. and Kenya. Journalists face steep challenges all over the world; the most recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review is devoted entirely to the theme. But especially in the context of the long-developed media landscape in the U.S., we need to be looking closely at how journalists and editors in places like Kenya are working—because we’re wrestling with similar dynamics.
Understanding Kenya’s media today
The media in Kenya has a strong reputation as a leader in East Africa—a reputation hard-won. Kenyans have access to an abundance of media choices, supported by a healthy demand for information among Kenyan citizens. Perhaps most significantly, freedom of the press is enshrined in Kenya’s constitution, an achievement that created a wave of optimism when it was ratified in 2010. But many respondents in our research described that optimism as having been tamped back down. Expectations for the media’s ability to truly hold the government accountable have been tempered as commercial forces and shifting media trends are straining newsrooms’ capacity (just as they are in the U.S.).
Those changes are the subject of our interactive digital report, “Strengthening Kenyan Media,” launched this month. We created the report for Omidyar Network, which has long supported innovation in independent media globally; our goal was to focus attention on Kenya and inspire conversation amongst the international community, and hopefully to drive more investment in and support for strengthening its media.
We found that the Kenya media is subject to the same basic framework that makes media a pillar of democracy all over the world. Not only do journalists inform the public, but independent journalists play a critical role in shining lights on how government operates. Journalists discourage corruption, mismanagement, and other breaches of the public trust. But they can’t do it on their own.
Check-and-balancing the 300-pound gorilla of government
Media only succeeds when it’s part of an “accountability ecosystem” comprising citizens, civil society, the judiciary, and government actors. As in any ecosystem, the strength of each constituent part is impacted by the others. The government is most often the 300-pound gorilla in the room; the media needs to work with both citizens and civil society to balance the gorilla’s weight. If the balance of power within the ecosystem is lopsided, accountability breaks down. If citizens don’t trust voting results, for example, they’re less likely to vote no matter how independently and accurately the press is reporting on elections. And without the trust of the public, the press is less likely to enjoy the protections necessary to practice free and fair journalism.
That’s why strengthening the media is also about engaging citizens and motivating them to pressure their political leaders. Reboot saw this dynamic in West Africa, for example, when we studied how the media landscape is evolving especially in the context of creative new uses of social media by citizens and activists alike to hold government to account. There, we found that while social media had somewhat increased citizens’ weight and influence, it hadn’t significantly improved the overall accountability ecosystem because it had simultaneously changed the constraints on the media. To truly hold the government to account, media in that context needs strategic support to evolve in tandem.
The accountability ecosystem is the framework of our Reboot Media program; we take a systems approach to strengthening media and civil society, while engaging the power of the people. In Nigeria today, for example, we are developing a crowdfunding platform for investigative journalism to help mitigate the influence of corporate pressures on journalists.
You can see the same dynamic here in the United States. The work of the independently funded journalism non-profit ProPublica is one great example: At the end of 2017, the organization published a series of case studies showing how their journalists and readers worked side-by-side during investigative reporting, creating ways for ordinary people to actively engage in the work of holding government accountable. In one case study, ProPublica obtained a list of more than 1,000 people hired by the White House on a temporary basis. Because those hires bypassed the vetting process by virtue of being temporary, ProPublica called on its readers to complete the vetting instead. One reader-submitted tip led to the revelation that a White House staffer had been the subject of five sexual assault accusations, which ProPublica subsequently reported in-depth.
When citizens’ engagement is aligned with the work of independent journalists in ways like these, it creates a positive cycle. Seeing their voices and priorities reflected in the media builds trust and encourages citizens to continue interacting with the media; the media, in turn, improves its ability to hear and pursue citizens’ priorities.
New ways to balance the accountability ecosystem
When the work of civil society is integrated along with that of media and citizens, the force is especially powerful, often because civil society organizations have earned the trust and engagement of large groups of citizens.
We heard an example of how this can work in Kenya, when one member of staff at a civil society organization described a local health facility that was put at risk by a “land grab” from government officials, which would have closed the facility and left many people without access to care. Within a few hours of hearing the news, the organization organized a demonstration using WhatsApp, calling on hospital patients and others to gather. Simultaneously, they reached out to their existing press contacts to amplify the demonstration. The combination of media coverage and public outcry successfully drew the attention of Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission; within three weeks, the land was returned to the health facility.
That’s the kind of ecosystem-based success that everyone interested in good governance should be thinking about. The more we can integrate media, civil society, and citizens, the stronger all three will be when calling on the government to uphold its end of the bargain.
One tactic may be creating actual physical and intellectual spaces, where journalists and their allies in the accountability ecosystem can strengthen their connections and experiment together. Journalists in both the U.S. and Kenya are dealing with economic pressure as well as political. The sea change created by social media and digital publishing has decreased available jobs and increased commercial influence over newsrooms, in ways that often compete directly with the goals of public interest. Any media outlet that relies on advertising revenue is going to face this pressure to some degree, especially in places (like Kenya and the U.S.) where commercial and political interests are often closely intertwined. That’s why we need new business models to overcome these challenges.
Most importantly, now is a time for solidarity. Journalists have long known that they are stronger when they stand together; one Kenyan journalist told us that solidarity is important because “politicians are very good at isolating and attacking media houses.” Several others told us that if they get a tip for a story that they fear would attract retaliation, they will share it with colleagues and encourage widespread coverage—a practice one respondent described as “spreading the risk.”
That commitment to solidarity is a valuable practice for all journalists in the modern era. Now, we just need to spread it beyond the field of journalism, and across the accountability ecosystem.
If you’re interested in the accountability ecosystem, we hope you’ll write to us! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your perspective on how media, civil society, and the people can best work together. As we continue working closely with global journalists on a number of initiatives this year to strengthen local accountability ecosystems, and we’ll be writing and sharing more case studies and stories, and would love to include yours!