Many countries across the globe have seen an increasing involvement of non-state actors in public policies. Scholars have used the term of network governance to describe this phenomenon. In democracies, such networks pose challenges to the democratic legitimacy of public policies. How can citizens control non-state actors given that they cannot be held accountable via elections? Previous research on the topic has mostly focused on institutional aspects of ensuring democratic accountability of governance networks. Our recent Policy & Politics article entitled ‘Over-responsibilised and over-blamed: elected actors in media reporting on network governance’ shows that – beyond institutional mechanisms – the media play an important and independent role for holding policy actors accountable to the public, whether they are elected or not.
Empirically, we examine policy-making processes in big European city regions, where network governance is widespread and usually includes a wide array of policy actors. Are non-elected actors held accountable in the media as much as elected actors and do the media report adequately upon them? To verify these questions we examined 1200 news articles from 12 different newspapers in eight big cities in four European countries (Berlin, Stuttgart, Zurich, Berne, Birmingham, London, Paris and Lyon). We looked at the public accountability of different types of actors involved in governance networks: how visible are they in the media and to what extent are they held responsible for policy success or failure? We were interested whether the media simply informs the public or whether some actors are more interesting to the media than others (media logic).
Comparing the institutional involvements of (non-) elected actors in policy-making processes to their appearing in media reports, it turns out that the media cover the variety of actors in an adequate way. This is good news: the media informs the public about the actors involved in policy-making. However, when it comes to attributing responsibility for policy outcomes, the media distinguish between elected and non-elected actors. Elected actors are more often held responsible for policy outcomes than non-elected actors. And our analysis of media content also shows that because they are held accountable more often, elected actors receive also more negative publicity. In contrast the reverse is the case for non-elected actors. Non-elected actors receive proportionally more praise for policy success, whereas their elected counterparts are more often blamed for policy failures. This finding suggests the existence of a media bias in news reporting on the roles of different actors in governance: elected actors are more newsworthy and therefore more often made responsible for policy outcomes. And, as negative reports sell better, the elected actors are more often blamed for (alleged) policy failures.
What is more, the strength of this media bias depends on different types of newspaper as well as on differences across media systems. Tabloid newspapers, who are under more commercial pressure than broadsheet newspapers, show higher ratios of blame compared to the actual accountability of policy actors than in the broadsheets. Some countries have stronger traditions of tabloid news reading (France & UK) and some countries have more broadsheet quality newspapers that are widely read (Switzerland & Germany). But quality newspapers show more precise reporting of accountability and less bias of blame and praise. After all, media systems use different journalistic writing styles that actually also impact on news reporting on governance networks.
In summary, we can trust the media and their role to accurately inform the citizens on the workings of governance networks, but we cannot do so blindly. It matters which newspaper we read and in which country we do so to understand whether we are exposed to biased news reports about the role of different actors in metropolitan policy-making. Ultimately metropolitan governance is complex, yet we depend on the media to reduce this complexity and to function as a forum for democratic accountability.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested to read Social democracy after the Third Way: restoration or renewal? by Christoph Arndt and Kees van Kersbergen.