BY JOHN HAMER
When I got a phone call from a reporter for American Journalism Review (AJR) saying he was doing a story about news councils, I was both happy and wary. Happy because we don't get much national coverage, especially from a prestigious publication like AJR. Wary because the reporter said he was a young editorial assistant at the magazine and had never even heard of news councils before his editor asked him to write about them.
But hey, I was a young reporter once and often did stories on subjects I was clueless about, so I gladly consented to an interview. I wanted to make sure he got the story right. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with him explaining how we operated, giving him background information, and referring him to other possible sources.
The story was posted March 2, 2011 on AJR's Web site as a "Web only" piece called "Fading Away." You can find it at http://ajr.org/ Article.asp?id=5025. Overall, it's not bad. Well-written, accurate and reasonably balanced, with several different perspectives and lively quotes. To his credit, the reporter called me back twice to double-check facts and run my quotes by me to make sure that's what I said. Not enough reporters do that, so kudos to AJR.
The story focused on the demise of the Minnesota News Council, which closed its doors in January, 2011 after a 40-year run. The MNC was the model for the Washington News Council when we started in 1998. We essentially adopted their guidelines and procedures, as AJR correctly notes.
The story-also correctly-pointed out that we are the only surviving news council in this country that still hears formal complaints against the news media. It states-correctly-that the WNC and the MNC, with funding from the Knight Foundation, held a national contest to start two more news councils in 2005 and awarded start-up grants to groups in New England and California. It notes-correctly-that the New England News Council changed its name to New England News Forum, and decided not to hear public complaints against media outlets, but just to host "discussions" about news-coverage issues. It also stated-correctly-that the California effort (actually, just Southern California) "never got off the ground." (Why? Because its director moved to another state.)
So, for the most part, the AJR story got it right. However, there are some points I take issue with, and think that the readers of MEDIA ETHICS will find this exchange interesting (a WNC news release similar to this article is provided as a link in the AJR story). This is not a formal complaint, but it covers many of the problems that old journalists notice in today's media.
HEADLINE -- "Fading Away" is true for the Minnesota council, but our council is as vigorous as ever. We just matched a $100,000 challenge grant from the Gates Foundation, received a $10,000 grant from Microsoft, and were named "Organization of the Year" by the Municipal League of King County. We totally redesigned our Web site in the past year, with an active blog, a growing online community, a fun "What I Read" series, a NewsTrust.net widget, and other innovative features. We have lots of exciting plans for 2011 and beyond. We are by no means fading away. What's more, news and press councils are proliferating around the world. For a global list, see the AIPCE's Web site.
OMISSIONS -- The story doesn't mention the WNC's latest really cool projects, introducing our "TAO of Journalism-Transparent, Accountable, Open" Pledge and Seal, which is gaining traction nationwide, and our unprecedented new OMG (not the standard texting acronym, but standing for "Online Media Guide") for Washington state, which is generating great interest. Granted, the reporter's space was limited, but surely there was room for a sentence or two about these efforts-especially since the story is a "Web exclusive."
QUOTES -- AJR quotes some folks whose comments are debatable, to say the least. Tony Carideo, the last chairman of the MNC, says that the willing participation of news organizations is "absolutely critical" to the success of any news council. Well, maybe. But in our 13 years of operations, news organizations have never actually appeared at our complaint hearings to answer questions about the stories at issue. In each case, they responded in written statements or online, but were not willing to face the complainants and the council in an open forum. Carideo told AJR that if the news outlets don't participate, "that doesn't work." Oh, really? He should ask King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, whose complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was upheld, or the Washington State Beef Commission and Dairy Products Commission, whose complaint against KIRO7 (TV) also was upheld.
The process clearly worked for them, as it has for others who have come to us when they had no other recourse. Complainants using this process must waive their right to access the courts. Results are published, often in the media involved, and the hearings are public. The fact that the media organizations didn't participate in person actually reflects more negatively on them than on us.
TECHNOLOGY -- AJR quotes Carideo and Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation saying that with the Internet, online feedback to news outlets is much quicker and easier, so there is less need for a complaint-and-hearing process. However, both acknowledge that comments sections are often uncivil and unproductive, and a news council can provide more thoughtful analysis of media ethics and performance. Gary Gilson, former head of the MNC, says it is "absurd" to think that online access provides "any serious measure of accountability to the general public." He's absolutely right. People constantly tell me that we are needed now more than ever.
Newton is spot on when he states: "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." That is precisely what the Washington News Council is doing-and further evidence that we are not fading away. Instead, we are actively reinventing ourselves in the digital media age. Want to help? Join our community. Talk back. Connect. Engage.