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.
“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 quasi-judicial 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). Sure, there’s a risk that ‘findings’ can be used in government proceedings (e.g., trials), but so what? Public opinion, codes of ethics, ombudsman columns — they can all be entered into evidence. I’ve heard the argument, usually from lawyers, that newsrooms should avoid writing codes of ethics because they create standards of performance that can be used against the newsroom. Well, of course. That’s the whole point of accountability.
“News councils need to form opinions because the public, usually in the form of a complainant, turns to the council, which is usually made up of journalists and nonjournalists, to investigate the complaint, gather additional information, and make an informed judgment about the quality of press performance. A discussion alone, without a conclusion, makes for an aimless and very unsatisfying discussion. Can you imagine asking an editorial writer or a columnist — or, more to the point, the public editor at The (New York) Times — to discuss interesting issues without taking a stand on any of them?
“I don’t know of any instances where news council decisions have been entered into evidence in, say, a libel trial, but I am familiar with some very compelling evidence that mechanisms like news councils head off litigation by providing a much-needed safety valve for people who feel wronged by the press.”
Frankly, I expected more of debate from the many and impassioned members of the ethics committee. But maybe the Bay Area contingent covered all the points.
Ethics Committee Chairman Gary Hill, who lives and works in the Twin Cities, added a point of information: Everyone presenting a complaint to the Minnesota News Council must sign a contract promising not to sue the media outlet named in the complaint.
“If the complainant won’t sign, the council doesn’t hear the case,” Hill pointed out.
SPJ President Irwin Gratz recalled that when there was a national news council, from 1973 until 1984, it printed its opinions in Quill.
The deadline to apply for a $75,000 grant is Feb. 15, 2006. The rules say applicants “must demonstrate the ability to raise additional funds, including a significant portion from media organizations, to support operations for at least three years.” They also must have or be seeking 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Fred Brown, SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.