3 May marks World Press Freedom Day, a date that celebrates the fundamental principle of freedom of expression and offers an opportunity to evaluate the situation of journalists around the world. It reminds us that the defence of those striving to report in an objective, accurate and timely manner is of paramount importance; threats and attacks on them are unacceptable.
The GEM 2017/8 Report, which focused on accountability in education, paid special attention to the role of the media. Every country has assorted formal institutional checks and balances to ensure governments exercise their authority in a way compatible with their commitments, ranging from auditors to parliamentarians. But within a broader political process, informal efforts also serve to hold governments accountable for their commitments, policies and results.
The media can be a key partner in holding governments to account
It is here that the role of the media is critical. The efforts of reporters involve the free flow of information to ensure transparency. People need the media to form and express informed views.
The media have huge potential to raise the visibility of education issues, putting pressure on education actors to meet their responsibilities and pursue policy change. By exposing evidence and directing focus, they can set the agenda for the public and policy-makers.
Media publications offer ways to familiarize the public with education research otherwise accessible only to specialists, and to express dissenting views on established policy decisions. Examples include The New York Times questioning the effectiveness of performance-based pay and The Guardian examining the design of criteria used to assess the effectiveness of tertiary education.
The media have played a role in investigating wrongdoing and reporting potential cases of corruption. For example, in Brazil journalists have covered abuses to the national basic education equalization fund. In Nigeria, newspapers have publicized allegations of ghost teachers or teachers collecting more than their official salary. In India, news networks have carried out investigative work to expose fraud and unprofessional practice in medical training institutions.
In Switzerland, the national public broadcaster Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen questioned the independence of 12 leading universities because of their sponsorship deals, especially within the pharmaceutical industry, and the potential conflicts of interest. It exposed the differences in transparency standards among universities and revealed that one pharmaceutical company reserved the right to alter research results. The findings sparked a national debate on making these contractual arrangements publicly available.
Increasing the flow of information through the media about funding allocation can help empower the public and increase pressure on education officials to act responsibly. In the late 1990s, Uganda’s government initiated a newspaper campaign to publish information on the amount and timing of capitation grant disbursements by the central government to school districts. A decrease in distance of 2.2 km to a newspaper outlet increased the share of funding that reached a school by nearly 10 percentage points.
In Madagascar, the grant received by 20% of schools in 2002/3 did not correspond with the declared amount sent by the district. Anecdotal evidence suggested the funds were diverted to non-education purposes or used privately by local officials. Campaigns via newspapers, radio and television led to the decreased probability of such local exposure, although the impact depended on local literacy rates. Where illiteracy was widespread, the impact of newspapers and poster campaigns was limited, while radio and television were more efficient.
In Mexico, the 2013 National Census of Schools, Teachers and Students of Basic and Special Education revealed some 39,000 teachers nobody had seen or known at their purported workplaces. The results were reported in major national and international media outlets, including El Universal, Milenio and The Wall Street Journal. The Secretariat of Public Education revised its administrative records to update personnel statistics and investigated those who were being paid but not working.
In the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, an analysis of tertiary education news in 1998–2007 showed the media regularly reported on corruption, including bribes, cheating and plagiarism, but was mostly silent on ethical issues, such as sexual and other misconduct and abuse of public property. There was a stronger emphasis on fraud, plagiarism and cheating in UK and US media, while Russian media focused on bribery in admissions and degree completion.
The media need to be up to the task
In times of rapid change in education, exposing problems and publicizing information are important media functions to ensure government accountability in education. Yet to achieve these and reflect diverse social views, the media need to be independent, competent, reflective, democratic and accountable – qualities often lacking, resulting in public distrust. A survey in 36 countries showed that less than half of respondents (43%) trusted the media and almost one-third (29%) avoided the news. While expansion of the internet and social media may have exacerbated the problem, the underlying drivers of mistrust in many countries have much to do with a politically polarized media landscape. Concentrated ownership, but also restrictions on press freedom, lead to perceptions of media bias.
In many countries, the quality of reporting may be poor. In addition to reflecting inherent bias, the media determine what qualifies as newsworthy. The skills of those researching, analysing, organizing and writing or broadcasting news play an important role in reporting quality. For example, the wide coverage of national and international learning assessments tends to be simplistic, emphasizing league tables and rankings instead of providing more nuanced analysis of causes, caveats and policy implications for which governments can be reasonably held to account.
3 May aims to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom but is also, in turn, a day of reflection among media professionals about press freedom and the issues of ethical standards. It is also a day of support for media organisations and the role they play in all spheres of life, including education.