Fading Away  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

Fading Away   

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Despite occasional flurries of interest in the concept over the years, the roster of U.S. news councils hearing complaints against the media has dwindled to one. Posted: Wed, March 2, 2011

By Greg Masters
Greg Masters (gmasters@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


The Minnesota News Council was a model for anyone thinking about starting a local or regional council to evaluate citizen complaints against news organizations. Particularly after 1996, when CBS' "60 Minutes," anchored by Mike Wallace, aired a segment on the council as it considered and upheld a complaint by Northwest Airlines against WCCO-TV, Minneapolis' CBS affiliate.

"It was watching that '60 Minutes' piece that kind of got us motivated to start the Washington News Council," says John Hamer, president and executive director of the Seattle-based council, which essentially adopted the Minnesota council's procedures and guidelines when it formed in 1998. "They were really the granddaddy of news councils in the United States."

But in January, after 40 years of "creating a forum where the public and the news media can engage each other in examining standards of fairness," the Minneapolis-based Minnesota News Council shut its doors. Tony Carideo, chairman of the council's board of directors, attributed the decision to a steady decline in the number of complaints and a "brutal recession" that dried up funding. He also cited the advent of the Internet as a factor in its demise.

It was a surprising end to a rare success story for an American news council -- rare because, unlike other councils, it enjoyed the support of the state's news media. Almost all Minnesota news organizations willingly participated in both hearings and public forums, according to Gary Gilson, executive director of the Minnesota News Council from 1992 to 2006. The Minnesota Newspaper Association started the council in 1970 and then "they cut the council loose from the Association so that the council would not be perceived, or act, as the lapdog of the newspaper industry," Gilson wrote in an e-mail interview, adding, "It worked."

A news council is a place where those who feel wronged by the media -- and whose attempts at redress go unsatisfied -- can file a formal complaint, as long as they waive their right to sue. If the issue remains unresolved, the council schedules a public hearing at which both sides can argue their cases. The council -- a group of volunteers with an equal number of media members and public members -- votes either to uphold or deny the complaint, and the decision is published. Media participation is voluntary, and the council can mete out no punishment.

"All we have is the power of publicity," says Hamer, who describes his organization as an "outside ombudsman."

The willing participation of news organizations is "absolutely critical" to the success of any news council, Carideo says. "If they don't participate, you don't have a conversation. You have a one-way dialogue, and that doesn't work."

While common in other countries, news councils have never caught on in the United States. Here, their history has been marked by periods of cautious interest as well as resistance by many journalists. Wallace, at the end of the Minnesota News Council segment on "60 Minutes" in 1996, said, "In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am a public supporter of state news councils, and I believe there should be a national news council, though many of my colleagues disagree with me."

There actually once was a National News Council, but it survived little more than a decade, from 1973 to 1984. Though it upheld only 82 of the 242 complaints against the media that it evaluated, it melted away in the face of a lack of support from major news organizations as well as financial woes. "My experience was, because of low budgets, they made about as many mistakes as they corrected," says Gene Roberts, a former Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor and onetime New York Times managing editor.

Twelve years after it went away, the "60 Minutes" piece led to a flurry of interest in news councils and to the creation of the Washington News Council, but a full-scale flourishing of the council movement was not to be. While the Washington council took root, only two others existed in the country over the next several years -- the one in Minnesota and one in Hawaii, which had been quietly operating since 1970. "Mike Wallace was a crusader for news councils...but his appeals could be easily ignored," Gilson says.

In 2005, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded a national contest to create two more news councils. Gilson and Hamer administered the contest and in 2006 chose proposals from California and New England.

"The idea was that news councils are still needed because they carefully investigate complaints against media and provide facts in a world of swirling opinions," Eric Newton, vice president of the Knight Foundation's journalism program, wrote in an e-mail interview. "With this information, people could then decide whether or not the news had been fair, accurate and contextual."

But the California council never got off the ground, while the New England council became something other than a complaint-hearing body. Its activities, instead, have focused on forums on news coverage issues. Executive Director Bill Densmore named it the New England News Forum (not "Council") after a survey of New England editors made clear they were uncomfortable with judicial-like hearings and findings.

"It isn't a sense of cavalierness on the part of editors," Densmore says. "There are many editors who really take seriously what they do and take seriously...the nurturing of their relationship with their users and readers and listeners and viewers. And for them, the idea that this third party would get between them and their audience just sticks in their craw."

About his role in the effort to create more news councils, Gilson says, "I learned that most publishers had no interest in being transparent or vulnerable when it came to public discussion of the standards involved in particular complaints."

As for the Knight initiative, Newton says "the experiments were too much like the original news councils and not innovative enough. What seemed clear to me was that the Web had created entirely new ways for people to deal with their news issues, and there just wasn't any significant local support for the new councils."

When the Minnesota News Council folded earlier this year, Carideo said he saw the Web as a factor in the drop-off in complaints. The Minnesota council, which had averaged about four public hearings per year, held just one hearing in 2009 and none in 2010.

"The news council was very effective at a time when complaints were delivered in envelopes," Carideo says. Now things are different: People can air their annoyance instantaneously through blogs, Twitter, e-mail and comments sections on the Web. "I don't think people were quite as sophisticated as they are now about the media," Carideo says.

But he worries that online interaction is often unproductive. "Comment sections, especially if they are anonymous, often veer quickly into acrimonious, unsubstantiated and unbridled invective," he says. In contrast, news council hearings provided an "outlet for robust and interesting conversation about what the media does and how it does it."

Gilson agrees. "The idea that direct public access to a news outlet via the Web provides any serious measure of accountability to the general public is absurd. Private communications to complainants may satisfy individuals, but that gives a paper a free pass as far as the public is concerned."

The Hawaii council, now named Media Council Hawaii, no longer has a complaints process, according to President Chris Conybeare. Today, only the Washington News Council has a process for reviewing complaints by people who feel the media has treated them unfairly. But it has held just a handful of public hearings; the last one was in 2006. "Hearings are a last resort," Hamer says, adding that complaints often are resolved through mediation.

He argues that councils still have an important role to play, Internet or no Internet. "Is our traditional complaint process still needed? My answer is yes," Hamer says. "Under certain circumstances, it may still be needed, and it may still be highly effective even with all the other technology that's made feedback more possible." A person who is "smeared" by a story, Hamer says, "can go on the comments page, but how many people are going to read that compared to who read the original story?"

But Hamer is experimenting with ways to move the process more deeply into the digital world. The council's Web site is becoming more interactive, he says, and in 2009 it held a "virtual hearing" in which the outcome was decided by an online public vote. Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed had filed a complaint against Seattle's KIRO 7 Eyewitness News regarding stories on alleged voting violations, but he decided not to seek a full hearing. As an alternative, the Washington News Council allowed the public to view the stories online, read the complaint and vote. The results ran heavily against the TV station.

Afterwards, the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, chaired by Andy Schotz, issued a statement criticizing the procedure, saying, "Public polling shouldn't be used to render ethics judgments about journalism." Hamer responded on the council's Web site, saying in part: "Isn't there a role for concerned citizens who care deeply about accurate and ethical news media?"

Newton says that in the digital age, "the question is not whether people are interacting with media, but how. We still need to keep thinking of good ways to keep quality news and information about journalism on the table when complaints are discussed, but it looks like we need digital, real time ways to do it," he says.

Newton points to research that indicates "media is becoming more personal, portable and participatory." He adds, "It's logical to think that any person, group, tool or institution hoping to do what news councils once hoped to do would need to employ digital tools in that same way."

As for the traditional complaint process that only one news council still engages in, Newton says "the future of that particular approach as a mass model doesn't seem bright. But the future of media engagement is so bright you need a good pair of sunglasses just to make sense of it."

Read John Hamer's response to this story at wanewscouncil.org

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