Exploring Media-Covered Accountability of Public Agencies

AuthorSandra Jacobs,Heidi Houlberg Salomonsen,Anke Wonneberger,Jan Boon
Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(4) 575 –604
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211036353
Exploring Media-Covered
Accountability of Public
Sandra Jacobs1, Jan Boon2,
Anke Wonneberger1,
and Heidi Houlberg Salomonsen3
Although journalism and media coverage are known to induce, inform, and
affect public accountability processes, little is known about media-covered
accountability. This study therefore explores accountability processes of
Danish and Flemish agencies as subjects of the news. Drawing on news
construction literature, our quantitative content analysis of newspaper
coverage (N = 13,540) focuses on the presence of accountability processes
in media coverage and the extent to which organizational characteristics
(task, political salience, and size) are related to this phenomenon. Horizontal
accountability forums have the highest media presence. Opinions from
horizontal forums, vertical forums, and citizens appear less frequently for
service-providing organizations.
public accountability, media, news factors, public agencies
1University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2University of Antwerp, Belgium
3Aarhus University, Denmark
Corresponding Author:
Sandra Jacobs, Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of
Amsterdam, P. O. Box 15793, Amsterdam 1001 NG, The Netherlands.
Email: s.h.j.jacobs@uva.nl
1036353AAS0010.1177/00953997211036353Administration & SocietyJacobs et al.
576 Administration & Society 54(4)
Public accountability is at the heart of the public sector: Government organi-
zations are embedded in a range of formal and informal accountability rela-
tions (Busuioc & Lodge, 2017; Overman et al., 2020). Many empirical studies
of public accountability describe and explain unmediated public accountabil-
ity mechanisms, that is, the direct information relations between the organi-
zation and the accountability requester, the forum, following from either
formal arrangements (Bovens et al., 2014) or more informal reputation-
driven dynamics (Busuioc & Lodge, 2017). Yet, coverage in the news media
can initiate and affect public accountability processes and accountability pro-
cesses can also be subjects of coverage (Jacobs & Schillemans, 2016). In t his
study, we focus on the latter: accountability as a subject of the news, also
called media-covered accountability. This concept refers to a specific sub-
ject of media coverage: organizations that are held to account (thus, being
criticized or praised) by “forums”: for instance, interest groups, citizens, or
Exploring the origins of news content, in this case: about organizational
accountability processes, implies analyzing the process of news construction.
Journalists act as gatekeepers of the news (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009) and
are—among other factors—driven by considerations of newsworthiness, in
which news factors—characteristics of events such as accountability pro-
cesses—are generally considered as increasing the chance of an event being
covered in the media (Eilders, 2006). In the context of public organizations
and their accountability processes, four news factors are especially impor-
tant: controversy or conflict, negativity, eliteness (actors with societal power
or impact), and relevance for or influence on society (Boukes & Vliegenthart,
2020; Eilders, 2006). Following news factor theory, accountability processes
are interesting for journalists as they inherently focus on the evaluation and
judgment of public organizations, which can exert powers over citizens and
institutions in society (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017).
Although much is known about the institutional design and functioning of
accountability processes on one hand (Bovens et al., 2014) and about news
factors related to organizational news (Boukes & Vliegenthart, 2020) on the
other hand, the magnitude of accountability covered in the media as well as
the conditions that affect this phenomenon are unknown. This combination is
especially relevant for two reasons. First, media coverage can amplify the
reach of accountability processes: coverage informs citizens about which
organizations were held to account by whom (Jacobs & Schillemans, 2019).
In that way, citizens are informed about how the institutions in their society
function, which helps them to exert their democratic roles (Dimova, 2019).

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