News Councils Revisited: The Knight Foundation Tries to Jump-Start a Little-Used Media Accountability Tool

By Carmichael, Bobby | American Journalism Review, October-November 2006 | Go to article overview

News Councils Revisited: The Knight Foundation Tries to Jump-Start a Little-Used Media Accountability Tool


Carmichael, Bobby, American Journalism Review


Just don't call them watchdogs.

"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.

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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.

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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. …

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