Push for More News Councils Sparks Debate, Controversy

By Brown, Fred | The Quill, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Push for More News Councils Sparks Debate, Controversy


Brown, Fred, The Quill


The Knight Foundation has decided to try to encourage the formation of more news councils throughout the country. There already are news councils in Hawaii, Minnesota and Washington that respond to complaints about the ethical behavior of news media outlets. But Knight agrees they should have some company.

Knight has asked the Minnesota and Washington councils to oversee a national competition. The two councils will decide who wins two $75,000 start-up grants.

News councils are controversial. Just ask the SPJ Ethics Committee. You needn't travel far to find a disagreement. The area around San Francisco Bay will suffice.

Peter Sussman, freelance writer in Berkeley, and Ted Glasser, Stanford University professor, debated the issue via e-mails distributed to the entire committee of 30-some members.

Sussman first:

"OK, I'll leap head-first into this thicket, with a big target on my backside: News councils have much to offer, but I have always thought that the devil was in the details. I am suspicious of any group, however respected and respectable, serving a judicial or quasijudicial role, passing judgments on journalistic practices.

"Not only is such a role risky in itself-with conclusions subject to differences of opinion and often dependent on the political and personal orientations of the individuals involved (in our highly polarized society) - but it gives itself to misuse by others, serving as a kind of 'Seal of Approval' that could be adopted by governments, courts, litigants or others so inclined, giving its judgments a power and legitimacy that its proponents never contemplated.

"In short, it can all too easily become a kind of 'shadow government' of journalism, a very dangerous notion. People are looking for solid 'official conclusions' in an uncertain world, and news councils appear to provide them, whether that is what they intend or not - and whether such clear conclusions are possible or not. Indeed, even when conclusions are ambiguously worded, the public will often seek out a consensus to hang its hat on.

"That said, I have never understood why news councils need to draw conclusions anyhow. I think they can perform a valuable function by investigating incidents, interviewing participants, explaining precedents, legal and ethical considerations and industry practices, clarifying points of contention and generally putting at the public's disposal the information they need to draw their own conclusions.

Ted Glasser replied:

"Let me see if I can take aim at the target on Peter's backside: How can you take public accountability seriously unless you're willing to live with the consequences of public accountability?

"News councils are public or civic entities; there's nothing quasi-governmental about them (the state doesn't sanction them). …

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