News Councils Revisited  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2006

News Councils Revisited   

The Knight Foundation tries to jump-start a little-used media accountability tool. Just dont call them watchdogs.

By Bobby Carmichael
Carmichael is a former AJR editorial assistant.     


"We are not watchdogs," says Gary Gilson, executive director of the Minnesota News Council since 1992. "We don't blow the whistle on anybody. The media should be the watchdogs; we facilitate public conversations about fairness."

That conversation has reached a noisy boiling point following incendiary, high-profile media blunders. And the participatory dynamic of new media (read: bloggers) often inflames the discussion, which can sink into partisan acrimony that is more cable show fodder than constructive dialogue.

In this climate, the Knight Foundation sponsored a nationwide competition for two $75,000 grants that will fund the establishment of two news councils.

"The explosion of media commentary was a factor in our decision to help the two existing news councils try this experiment," Eric Newton, the foundation's director of journalism initiatives, wrote in an e-mail interview. "The digital revolution has rapidly increased commentary on 'the media.' But the debates are more often than not devoid of fact and based on pre-fixed political menus."

The Knight Foundation gave $50,000 grants to two existing news councils, the Minneapolis-based Minnesota council and the Seattle-based Washington News Council, led by Executive Director John Hamer, to administer the competition.

One winner, the New England News Council, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, will cover the six New England states, and the other, the Southern California News Council, out of California State University at Long Beach, will have jurisdiction over all of California south of Santa Barbara. The nascent councils are the fourth and fifth in the country, joining the Minnesota and Washington councils and the Honolulu Community Media Council in Hawaii.

The news council concept is simple. When a consumer feels wronged by a media outlet and his attempts at redress are not satisfied, he can waive the right to sue and file a formal complaint with the news council. For example, on July 28 the King County Sheriff's Office filed a complaint with the Washington News Council against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The sheriff's office, the target of a long-running P-I series, "Conduct Unbecoming," accused the P-I of inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced reporting.

Upon receiving the complaint, the council alerted the P-I. According to the council's policy, if the complaint isn't resolved in 30 days, the council holds a public hearing at which both sides may present their cases. Finally, the council will vote to uphold or deny the complaint and publish its decision. That's it. No fines. No forced correction. Only the glare of publicity. The council has no authority to levy punishment or compel a response from the media outlet, and media participation is voluntary.

In the King County case, the P-I declined to participate, citing the council's potential conflicts of interest. Hamer and five WNC members made contributions ranging from $35 to $1,000 to the campaigns of the current and former King County sheriffs. Those members offered to recuse themselves, but that did not change the P-I's stance. "This was outstanding journalism," says David McCumber, the P-I's managing editor. "Taking this to the news council was a shame in a way, because I think for some people that tainted this work."

Opponents have long claimed that the news council concept is simply a step toward regulation. Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, an association of Washington newspapers, points out that internationally "many news councils were set up by their governments, and they're actually official arms of the government used to control their news content."

But for Thompson the issue isn't the First Amendment; he says there's no evidence that news councils work. "I'm hard- pressed to see that they provide satisfaction to anyone who's disgruntled... It seems to me you can sue somebody if you're really upset," he says, guessing that the vast majority of Washington and Minnesota citizens don't know their states have news councils. He adds, "Self-flagellation is a specialty of this business. We're tougher on ourselves than I think a news council could be."

Critics also point to ombudsmen, letters to the editor and published corrections as widely available tools of accountability and transparency. Currently, however, only 35 to 40 newspapers employ ombudsmen nationwide. "Ombudsmen are great," says Hamer, an associate member of the Organization of News Ombudsmen. "But who pays their salaries? We are a kind of outside ombudsman."

He believes the public's low opinion of the media reinforces a need for news councils. "Everyone is trying to figure out how the news media can regain the public's trust," he says, and that is "exactly what we are trying to do. It's no panacea, but I think it can help. It's one more tool to address issues of accuracy and fairness."

On May 22, 1988, for example, Minneapolis' Star Tribune ran an eight-page story on teenage pregnancy. It chronicled a 16-year-old black girl, with her permission, through much of her pregnancy and her first 15 months as a mother. The United Black Front submitted a complaint to the council insisting the article lacked balance and fairness and perpetuated a stereotype in a state that was then approximately 95 percent white.

The Star Tribune participated in the hearing and the council ruled in its favor, denying the complaint in a 10-2 vote, even taking the unusual step of commending the paper for exemplary journalism. However, the hearing and the complaints led then-Executive Editor Joel Kramer and then-Managing Editor Tim McGuire to reevaluate their paper's coverage of minority communities. They decided they weren't doing enough and, in a front-page editor's note, made a public commitment to improve minority coverage. "This was a watershed event," Gilson says. "I believe it would not have happened if the complaint hadn't been brought to the news council. It really stirred the newspaper to think about its performance."

News councils are not a new idea, just one that hasn't flourished. In 1973, the National News Council was formed in part as a response to the flagging public confidence in the media that followed the Nixon administration's assault on the press. The national council, assailed by prominent critics like former New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, limped along for 10 years before fizzling out.

Hodding Carter, who served on the commission sponsored by the Twentieth Century Fund that recommended the establishment of the national council, believes "the refusal of major players made it dead before it started, and it tottered off into its grave to vast yawns in most quarters."

However, he adds, "What was interesting was that a lot of people came in pretty damn dubious, unamused by the idea," but by the end there were more converts than detractors, even among journalists themselves.

If the concept is to catch on, media participation is crucial, says Carter, a public policy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The only way it works is if the media participate and agree to publish the decisions that come down."

In Minnesota, Gilson estimates the media participation rate at 99 percent and attributes the council's success to heritage: The Minnesota Newspaper Association, representing about 365 newspapers statewide, founded the 36-year-old council, which became independent a few years later.

In Washington, no media outlets have taken part in the handful of hearings held by the state's eight-year-old council. But the editor of Spokane, Washington's Spokesman-Review, Steven A. Smith, recently asked the council to review how the paper has covered a land development project tied to the Cowles family, which owns the paper. To conduct the review, the council hired Bill Richards, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter who recently completed a three-year stint as an "outside reporter" with the Seattle Times, where he covered the Times' dispute with the P-I over their joint operating agreement.

Leaders of the two new councils say they hope to forge strong ties with media outlets in their states. Bill Densmore, a journalism consultant at UMass and executive director of the New England News Council, says his top priority is to develop a relationship with local editors, news directors and online news communities.

"We want to be very collaborative with the New England Newspaper Association and the New England Press Association," he says, and he wants to create the New England Common, "an online civic space, or meeting place, where people can have a dialogue" on media issues. "We'd like to have a lead blogger from each state," he says, "not someone necessarily from the media, but, ideally, a citizen with media interest to help moderate and initiate discussions."

Bill Babcock, executive director of the Southern California News Council and chair of the journalism department at California State University at Long Beach, hopes to mitigate opposition and draw media support by making its objective clear. Initially "we'll be a media evangelist," spreading the word that "we're here as another media accountability tool and not as media bashers."

Ultimately, Carter says, councils are just another means to an end: "a press and public existing with respect for each other, not adoration, but at least a little trust." After a pause, he adds, "It's a very tricky deal."

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