Want to open up more dialogue among journalists, academics and citizens?

 Want to make your news media more open, transparent and accountable?

 Want to help maintain public trust and confidence in your state's news media?

 Want to give students some unforgettable case studies in media ethics?

If so, you should help start a news council in your state.

Apply for one of the two $75,000 start-up grants that will be awarded in a national contest funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.

The application deadline is Feb. 15, 2006. Winners will be chosen by May 2006.

The Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) in Seattle and the Minnesota News Council (www.news-council.org) in Minneapolis are overseeing the competition and will select the winners. (See their Web sites for guidelines and application forms.)

Grant applicants may be from coalitions of journalism schools, citizen groups, media outlets, civic activists or business associations. They should be nonpartisan, diverse and representative of their states and communities. They must have or be seeking 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service.

The Minnesota and Washington councils will award the start-up grants to the groups that submit the most detailed and viable proposals. Partnership proposals that include print, broadcast and online media outlets are especially encouraged. Applicants must be able to raise additional funds, including a significant portion from media organizations, to support operations for at least three years.

News councils are independent, nonprofit organizations that investigate complaints against news organizations and issue evidence-based rulings about media accuracy and fairness. They provide public forums where citizens and journalists can discuss media performance and ethics. They have been called "outside ombudsmen" for the media.

The mission of the Minnesota and Washington News Councils is to promote fair, accurate, vigorous and trusted journalism. They do this by offering the media and citizens an alternative to litigation when handling complaints. They also sponsor panels and discussions on media-related issues. And they conduct student mock news council hearings and other educational activities.

The idea for the competition originated with Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at the Knight Foundation. "News councils that actually take the time to investigate a complaint before reaching a conclusion are a welcome relief from today's horde of self-appointed media critics offering froth without fact," Newton said.

"News councils are needed today more than ever before," said Cyrus Krohn, past president of the Washington News Council and former publisher of Slate.com. "Every state should have a news council."

"If the news media want to restore their eroding credibility with the public, they should embrace the news council concept," said John Finnegan, Sr., chairman of the Minnesota News Council board and retired executive editor of the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press.

Worldwide, dozens of countries have press councils, including England, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Canada. And new ones are springing up in many other countries. (For a complete list, see  www.rjionline.org).

The Minnesota and Washington News Council members each include a dozen journalists and a dozen laypersons, who represent only themselves. The councils invite news organizations to address complaints against them in open hearings. This helps journalists explain how they act in the public interest and helps them learn how to improve their service to readers, viewers or listeners. Participation by news outlets is entirely voluntary.

Of the 1,650 grievances filed with the Minnesota News Council since its creation in 1970, 136 have been discussed at hearings. About half of the time, the Minnesota council has agreed with the journalists, half the time with the public. Of 21 complaints filed with the Washington News Council since it was formed in 1998, only three have led to hearings. Two complaints were upheld; one was not. Others were dismissed as unwarranted or were resolved with the council's help as an informal mediator.

A National News Council, based in New York, operated from 1973 to 1984. Media critics of the council said they resented a group that included non-journalist outsiders scrutinizing journalists' performance. Proponents said the news media would benefit by embracing any form of transparency, including a news council.

Some journalists remain skeptical of news councils, contending that they will have a "chilling effect" on vigorous reporting and further diminish public trust in the media. Others call news councils a first step toward government regulation or control of the news media.

The opposite is true. Good reporters and editors have nothing to fear from news councils, which strongly support vigorous, accurate reporting. Greater willingness by journalists to be more open to public scrutiny will actually increase public trust. And news councils are a defense against government interference, performing a kind of "peer review" function. They accept no public funding or taxpayers' dollars, to avoid any hint of government control of the media.

Stephen Silha, current president of the Washington News Council, wrote in The Christian Science Monitor (Aug. 29, 2005): "As someone familiar with two news councils in Minnesota and Washington State, I can offer firsthand testimony that news councils are great places for journalists and citizens to talk about news coverage, learn from each other, and strengthen the relationships between news organizations and their communities." Silha's late father, Otto, was publisher of the Minneapolis Star & Tribune when the Minnesota News Council was formed in 1970 by that state's newspaper association, and helped found the Silha Center for the study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota Journalism School.

News councils are an idea whose time has come-again. These days, the news media need all the help they can get. As the saying goes, journalism is no longer a lecture, but a conversation. News councils can help enhance and invigorate that conversation.

Every state deserves a news council. If more are formed, citizens and journalists will all be better off.

John Hamer is Executive Director of the Washington News Council, which he helped found in 1998. He is former Associate Editorial-Page Editor of The Seattle Times, and a former staff writer for Congressional QuarterlyEditorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C. This article also appears in the fall issue of Ethical News, the newsletter of the Media Ethics Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.13,24.