These days it seems that everyone wants to control, regulate, oversee, fine, punish, and/or spank the news media.
Cases in point:
- In England, a new press regulatory body was proposed by Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and leaders of the Labour and Liberal parties after the report of a lengthy, government-mandated “Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press” led by Lord Justice Leveson. Leading publishers and editors are pushing back, and the whole idea now faces more contentious wrangling and debate.
- Across the Channel, the European Commission’s “High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism” has proposed a “Digital Agenda for Europe” that includes mandatory press councils with enforceable ethics codes, government regulation of media outlets, and other heavy-handed oversight of journalists and journalism. The EC is seeking public comments on a long list of options.
- In the United States, public outrage over several recent media missteps—inaccurate reports on the Boston Marathon bombings, misinformation on the Newtown school shootings, and misleading stories about Hurricane Sandy, among others—have led to widespread angst and apologies from journalists, along with calls for more controls on this nation’s news media.
Here’s a modest solution that could save everyone a lot of trouble, a model that has been working pretty well for the past 15 years: Anyone concerned about media accuracy, ethics, standards, and professionalism should help establish an independent outside organization modeled after the Washington News Council in Seattle.
Some critics say that news councils are a first step toward government control of the media. Actually, the opposite is true. We believe they are a barrier to government interference, and are a responsible form of media self-regulation.
We are an “independent forum for media ethics” in Washington state. We were founded in 1998 by a group of concerned citizens, including community, business and media leaders. Our mission is “to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by creating a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in examining standards of media ethics and accountability.”
We're now the only statewide news council left in the United States, since Minnesota's closed its doors in 2011. However, there are dozens of similar organizations all over the world. We are a member of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe which has several non-European members.
Our first 20-member board was selected from nearly 200 nominations statewide, with finalists chosen by an independent group from very diverse backgrounds. Many private citizens, including working journalists, former editors, academic, business and nonprofit leaders have served on our board over the past 15 years. No media executives or current elected officials are on our council, to avoid conflicts of interest or politicization.
We are non-partisan and truly independent in membership, governance and funding. A generous start-up grant from the Gates Foundation got us up and running. Bill Gates, Sr. was one of our original Board members and has continued to support the organization.
Our financial support has come from a mix of foundations, corporations, individuals, associations and media organizations. We accept no public tax dollars because we don’t want any hint of government control of the news media. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, so donations are tax-deductible—and always welcome. Our annual budget is less than $200,000 a year. Our staff is quite small. Our board members are all volunteers.
We recently added 15 new board members, including many with previous experience as working journalists to the eight hold-overs from 2012. The board could grow to as many as 30 members, each limited to two three-year terms, although emeritus members may sit on the Hearing Board—and many do.
Our new strategic plan focuses on how to meet ethical challenges in the new digital media age, when everyone is a journalist in some way. Today, anyone with a laptop, tablet or smart phone can distribute news and information to a wide audience. But what standards of accuracy, fairness and ethics do they follow, if any? The Washington News Council encourages best practices and high standards by everyone committing “acts of journalism.”
The News Council promotes the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code, but also encourages media organizations to follow their own ethics codes if they have them. As for citizen journalists, we urge them to adopt basic principles reflected in existing codes. Or at least follow what might be called the “Golden Rule of Journalism.” If the story was about YOU, how careful would you be to get the facts right and be fair?
We take our mission of actively promoting high standards and best practices very seriously. One way we do this is to review complaints against news media organizations—print, broadcast and online. We get about a dozen inquiries a year from individuals or organizations who feel they have been damaged by inaccurate or unfair stories about them.
Our first step is to ask if they have tried to get a response from the offending publication. If not, we insist they try. If no satisfactory response is forthcoming, we may accept their formal written complaint for our process. All complainants must sign a waiver pledging not to sue the media outlet for libel or other defamation. If the complaint is serious, we notify the media organization and may ask for redress in the form of corrections, clarifications, follow-up stories or public apologies. In some cases, we may try to informally mediate the dispute—and have done so successfully several times.
If mediation fails, we hold an open public hearing and invite both parties to make their case to a panel made up of our council members, current and emeritus. Media participation is entirely voluntary. If they don’t show up, we read any of their written statements into the record. Our council members carefully review the complaint and vote—in public—on the merits. The hearings are broadcast statewide by TVW, a nonprofit cable channel that covers the State of Washington (our equivalent of C-SPAN), and the hearings often attract other media coverage as well as public audiences.
For recent examples of these public hearings, see the Leschi School Community vs. KIRO7 Eyewitness News and Vitae Foundation vs. KUOW94.9 cases on our Web site. Read the results, watch the videos and let us know what you think.
In addition, we ask the public to vote online on the same questions that the Council considers at our hearings. We call this a “Citizens Online News Council”—thus democratizing the concept of outside media oversight. We first did this several years ago in a complaint by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Eyewitness News, and received dozens of votes and comments. We required real names; no anonymous votes.
With expanded use of social media, we plan to greatly increase the number of citizens who follow our hearings and vote on the issues in the complaint. We have asked our digital gurus to come up with an online voting system that would eliminate the possibility of “stuffing the ballot box.” Only one vote will be allowed per person, and other safeguards will be established. If anyone tried to stuff the ballot box, we’d publicize that action widely.
We hope to livestream future complaint hearings so that people can watch and vote at the same time as our Hearing Board members and observers present in the hearing room. The WNC Board wants to give the public—including professional groups such as Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) and journalism students—a broader role in judging our complaints. What’s wrong with that?
No medium is sacrosanct. Our most significant complaint against a newspaper came from King County Sheriff Sue Rahr against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2006. It was the subject of a full-page story inThe Seattle Times on the day of the hearing.
The Washington News Council is no panacea. But in these days when media organizations are all seeking more engagement, comments, feedback and participation, our process can help restore trust and confidence in journalism—which, as every public opinion poll in recent years has shown, is at rock bottom. What else is working?
- John Hamer is president and executive director of the Washington News Council, which he co-founded in 1998. He is a former associate editor and editorial writer for The Seattle Times and a former writer and editor at Congressional Quarterly/Editorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College with a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University. An earlier version of this article ran on Crosscut.com and was offered to several British newspapers. All “passed” on running it.