SPJ President David Carlson wrote recently in Quill that journalists have “allowed our ethics to decay.” “Ethics has to come from each of us,” he wrote, adding: “Acting ethically is the only way to restore our credibility.”
He’s absolutely right, but journalists cannot restore public trust and credibility alone any more than any other profession could do that. They need help from citizens who care deeply about the role of the news media in our democracy.
News councils provide a neutral structure for that dialogue by conducting public forums where panelists of journalists and citizens discuss media ethics and performance.
They work to resolve disputes between media outlets and individuals or organizations that believe they have been damaged by the press.
If a resolution is not possible, news councils hear formal complaints in an open public hearing and issue nonbinding determinations.
“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 former executive editor of the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press.
Some journalists are skeptical of news councils, based partly on memories of the National News Council, which operated from 1973-84. Critics resented having nonjournalist outsiders scrutinize the press.
Today, savvy journalists realize they must be more transparent. Many are trying hard to do that, and commendably so.
However, in order to regain public trust, journalists must be willing to be even more accountable — and invite the public to be part of that process. Media professionals and news organizations are active in both the Minnesota News Council and the Washington News Council.
The SPJ Ethics Code’s “Be Accountable” section is a good description of news councils:
* We offer a forum for journalists to clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
* We encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
* We urge the media to admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
* We help expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
* We ask journalists to abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
* We’re a kind of “outside ombudsman” or “better business bureau” for the media.
Skeptical journalists offer various excuses to oppose news councils. None of their criticisms holds up under scrutiny. Both the MNC and WNC now have lengthy track records. Both have been fair, professional, thorough, unbiased, and independent. Both support vigorous, accurate investigative reporting. Both have earned broad community respect and media support.
To avoid any hint of government regulation, they accept no public funds and have no elected officials on their boards. Because news councils offer a form of “peer review,” they provide a defense against government control of the press.
News councils are an idea whose time has come — again. As WNC President Stephen Silha wrote in the Christian Science Monitor (Aug. 29, 2005): “Doesn’t every state deserve a news council?”
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 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.