WNC Helps Form New Southern California and New England News Councils, with Knight Foundation national grant

The Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) and the Minnesota News Council (www.news-council.org) announced on June 30, 2006, that Southern California and New England were the winners in a national contest to create two new local news councils.

The Southern California News Council and the New England News Council now become the fourth and fifth such councils in the United States, joining those in Minnesota, Washington and Hawaii. Dozens of other such councils exist in nations around the world.

News councils are independent, nonprofit organizations that promote trusted journalism by investigating accuracy and fairness complaints against news outlets. They help determine the facts involved in these disputes, and provide open forums where citizens and journalists can discuss media ethics, standards and performance.

The new news councils each receive a $75,000 start-up grant, given by Washington and Minnesota from funds provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Fla. The WNC and MNC received a joint grant last year from Knight to design the national contest, advertise it nationwide, review applications and select two winners.

“News councils are an idea whose time has come – again,” said Stephen Silha, president of the Washington News Council board. “Every state deserves a news council.”

The Southern California News Council will temporarily reside at the Journalism Department at California State University, Long Beach, with the goal of forming an independent nonprofit 501c3 organization. It will cover the state from Santa Barbara south. It will be headed by Bill Babcock, chairman of the Journalsim Department at Cal State Long Beach. The Washington News Council’s Executive Director, John Hamer, presented the grant to Babcock at a gathering on the campus on June 30.

The New England News Council will reside in the Journalism Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and cover the six New England states. It will be led by Bill Densmore, a journalism professor there who also directs the Media Giraffe Project. The Minnesota News Council’s Executive Director, Gary Gilson, presented the grant to Densmore Amherst during the “Media and Democracy” conference on the campus June 30. Washington News Council President Stephen Silha was also there, leading a “Journalism That Matters” national seminar.

Organizing committees for the two new councils include journalists, academics and members of the public. Both councils will invite the participation of a broad and diverse range of citizens who care deeply about the vital role of news media in a democracy.

An informal advisory board for the project included national journalism leaders Merrill Brown, Fabrice Florin, Dan Gillmor, Loren Ghiglione, Cyrus Krohn, Phil Meyer, Bill Moyers, Jay Rosen, and Jan Schaefer.

The birth of these news councils coincides with a growing trend toward openness and accountability in the news media driven by the new era of two-way communications marked by the emergence of the Internet.

“A news council or any inquiry that seeks out the real facts behind media complaints is better than a blogger working from opinion alone, and vastly superior to the talking heads on cable TV with their pre-fixed political menus,” said Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at the Knight Foundation.

“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.

In Washington and Minnesota, the news councils comprise two dozen or so members from the public and the news media, who represent only themselves, not their employers. They listen to unresolved complaints and media responses at a public hearing, investigate the facts behind the complaints, and then offer their view as to whether or not the complaint is valid. Complainants must waive the right to sue to qualify for a hearing.

In Washington, only two complaints have been upheld since the council was formed in 1998, while others were dismissed as unwarranted or were resolved with the council’s help. In Minnesota, half the complaints have been upheld and half denied since the news council started in 1970.

Participation by news outlets is entirely voluntary.

Both the California and New England councils plan to engage the public and the media on the Internet, through interactive forums on journalistic standards and ethics. The Washington and Minnesota councils regularly conduct public forums that stress civil discourse, not media-bashing. The results often improve media quality and increase public trust. The existing councils also work with college and high-school journalism students, conduct mock news council hearings, and award scholarships. The Washington News Council sponsors an annual Gridiron West Dinner, always held in November.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation promotes journalism excellence worldwide and invests in the communities where the Knight Brothers owned newspapers. Since its creation in 1950, the Knight Foundation has invested more than $275 million to advance journalism quality and freedom of expression. For more, visit www.knightfdn.org/annual.

CONTACTS:

John Hamer, Executive Director, WNC, jhamer@wanewscouncil.org (206.262.9793)

Bill Babcock, Cal State Long Beach, wbabcock@csulb.edu (562.985.4981)

Gary Gilson, Executive Director, MNC, gary@news-council.org (612.341.9357)

Bill Densmore, UMass Amherst, densmore@journ.umass.edu (413.458.8001)

Eric Newton, Director of Journalism Initiatives, enewton@knightfdn.org (305.908.2600)

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