News councils are one avenue to improve news media accountability. To do so, they must earn the trust of news media and the public. And there’s the challenge. Panelists in the Project Watchdog town meeting at SPJ’s National Convention agreed on the virtues of news councils but said they may not do enough to cultivate credibility, especially if journalists don’t take them seriously. The United States has only three news councils – in Minnesota, Washington and Hawaii – but the concept flourishes in other countries. News councils hear complaints against the media and issue non-binding decisions. Joann Byrd, editorial page editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said, “The first work of the news councils is to convince the news media and the public that they are working on their behalf.” Councils must show they are disinterested critics working toward the same goal as news media, which is to serve the public. Cliff Rowe, journalism professor at Pacific Lutheran University and a member of the Washington News Council, said, “A news council is not a hanging jury. The goal is to get the public and the news media talking.” Carol Nunnelly, from The Associated Press Managing Editors’ National Credibility Roundtable Project, said, “I think news councils may be, to some extent, winning the battle but losing the war.” The fact that many news council upstarts in the 1970s became extinct does not bode well. Nunnelly said some newspapers are adapting news council principles into their daily operations, such as providing opportunities for readers to directly comment on performance. “Sunshine might be good for us as well as all those people we cover.” She said that, more than adjudication of a complaint against a news media outlet, consumers want a conversation with journalists. News councils can’t force open that line of communication. She also said news media are just now beginning the process of internal review that other industries have been doing for a long time. Geneva Overholser, Hurley professor in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said journalists should look for every effective way of advancing credibility. That includes news councils. “I think they are part of a menu of responding to the challenges we face,” she said. Overholser said journalists are not good at accepting criticism and making corrections. “The fact is we have been remiss in not doing more. … We put our emphasis in the wrong place.” Rowe said, “If we are to do the job of the press in times of conflict … we must have the understanding and the backing of the public.” He said the Washington News Council does more than hear complaints. It sponsors educational forums about community issues. Lou Hodges, panel moderator and journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, said, “There is no quick fix for this whole situation.” Letters to the editor, reader councils, ombudsmen and news councils are ways for the public to hold journalists accountable. But the battle is not easily won, said Byrd. “The public sees the news media as being one more business.” They do not see journalists as public servants.
Nerissa Young is chairwoman of SPJ’s Project Watchdog committee.