International Q&A: Are news/press councils still relevant?

Regina Bengco, senior reporter of the Philippine newspaper Malaya Business Insight

From time to time we get get interesting emails from journalists and academics overseas who are interested in the News Council process here in the USA. Since we are the last fully operating News Council standing in America, these questions are especially relevant. It’s also important to note that there is generally stronger support for News Councils in other countries (as I saw during my trip to London where I joined the global roster of News Councils that make up the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe)

Here’s an email from a reporter from the Phillipines working on a fellowship to address the status of press councils, including the one in her home country.

I am Regina Bengco, senior reporter of the Philippine newspaper Malaya Business Insight which is based in Manila. I am currently in Singapore as a participant in the Asia Journalism Fellowship jointly organized by the Nanyang Technological University and Temasek Foundation.

I would like to request for a few minutes of your time to help me in my research project for the Fellowship, which is on the readiness of the press council in the Philippines to handle future challenges on accountability, especially in the technological age.

Since the orientation of the Philippine media is patterned after that of the US, I believe your inputs would be very helpful in my research.

May I ask for your reply to the following short questions:

1. Are press councils still relevant in this age of modern technology, where reply and redress could be obtained instantly through online media?

This is an argument that comes up quite frequently from journalists and journalism organizations who are skeptical about the importance and necessity of Press/News Councils. Indeed, there are certainly more tools available for response and possible recourse, thanks to the continuing digital revolution, and we are glad to see new ways of enabling people to have a voice against inaccuracies. However, do as many people read comments on a news site as read the original stories? Probably not. If someone blogs but there is no one there to read it, does it make a difference? Is a buried email any better than an unopened letter?

No matter how advanced technology becomes, it will always take human beings to transform the message into action, and get others to listen. We still have a role to play in keeping the mission of quality journalism alive, and amplifying the voices of those who are drowned out in the digital tide.

Furthermore, we are undertaking new initiatives that do exactly what critics say should be done, which is to leverage digital technologies in order to help those who have difficulty keeping up with the constantly evolving nature of online media. We have built an online community that allows anyone to post examples of and commentary on media coverage in our region. We are creating an interactive Online Media Guide to help the public navigate the world of digital news and become better equipped to carry out our mission. We are also reaching out to journalists to adopt our TAO of Journalism seal to show their commitment to Transparency, Accountability, and Openness. We have added a NewsTrust.net widget to our site so people can review and rate news stories in our state. We will soon add a MediaBugs widget so they can report errors online and seek a response from the media outlet. We strongly believe that such tools will help engage citizens in constructively critiquing — and thus improving — news and information sources of all kinds.

2. Why is the Washington News Council the only news council left in the US that accepts complaints against the media (please pardon the ignorance)?

This is a difficult question that we get asked a lot. Since the Minnesota News Council closed its doors early this year, we are the only remaining U.S. news council that accepts and reviews complaints. We think that’s too bad: There should be similar organizations in every state. As you may know, there are press councils all around the world in many other countries. For a full list and links to all their sites, visit the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe site (http://aipce.net), which includes several (like us) that are outside Europe. In the U.S., there was a National News Council that existed from 1973-84, and did some excellent work. But it ultimately closed due to opposition from major American news organizations including The New York Times and The Washington Post, which resisted any outside oversight. Many large U.S. newspapers supported the council, but it died for lack of funding. Minnesota’s News Council was created in 1970 by the Minnesota Newspaper Association, and had media funding and support for decades. But when its major media donors began having financial problems, its funding dried up. Also, the MNC did not make the transition to the digital world as well as it might have done. And its last executive director was not an experienced journalist or fund-raiser, although she did her best to keep it alive. We and the MNC tried to start two more news councils a few years ago, with the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation. We gave $75,000 start-up grants to fledgling councils in New England and Southern California. The New England group changed its name to News Forum and decided not to hear complaints after receiving negative reactions from newspaper editors in several New England states. The Forum holds public discussions of media issues, which is fine, but that does not provide true public accountability in the same way that a complaint and hearing process does. The Southern California group did not get off the ground because its initial director left his job as a journalism-school department chair in a dispute with the administration over student press freedom, and he moved to another state. The Honolulu Media Council does not hear complaints, but works for media reform. So we now stand alone.

Another part of the problem has to do with a lack of support from American journalists. We believe that accountability is a two-way street, and those who demand transparency from all other institutions of society deserve outside scrutiny as well. While it’s not as common, some journalists do agree with what we’re doing, and you can find some prominent examples on the testimonials page of our website. As the online news environment continues to shake things up, we’re finding more people in the profession who support our cause, now that anyone can be a journalist regardless of training or experience.

3. There seems to be a problem of lack of funding in some news councils in the world, including the Philippines, how does your organization sustain its operations?

This has been a challenge for all 13 years of the WNC’s existence. We publish a complete list of our supporters on our website. We were very fortunate to win the support of Bill Gates Sr. and the Gates Foundation when we first formed in 1998. He gave us a generous start-up grant that kept us going for the first few years. He made clear that we must diversify our funding, and we did so. Our support comes from a great mix of foundations, individuals, corporations, associations and a few media companies. We believe that a diverse range of funding is important, to show that we are not controlled by any single funder or small group of funders. In our entire history, none of our funders has ever tried to direct or influence our work. If they did, we would decline their funding. We also do not accept any government funds, believing that giving taxpayer dollars to an organization like ours would create the appearance of government oversight of the press. That is a First Amendment violation which we would strongly oppose. We are a 501c3 non-profit organization, so donations to us are tax-deductible. We qualify as a research and education organization that operates in the public interest, like many other U.S. non-profits.

4. How do you remedy the problems of lack of funding and resources, lack of public awareness of the existence of a news council, and lack of commitment from the news organizations, themselves?

We keep our chins up and do the best we can! There is no final “remedy” other than hard work and dogged  persistence. We’ve found through our interactions with the public that many people have issues with the press, and they generally support our mission regardless of their background or political persuasion. The challenge is not so much convincing people to believe in what we do, but rather to understand that our services are just as valuable as any other public-interest organization. We think they may be more valuable, because the news media affect every other segment of society. One of our most generous funders, Bill Gates Sr. gave a recent speech to the Municipal League of King County, who honored us with an award for the 2010 Organization of the Year. Bill’s said it best:

Unlike other nonprofit organizations that help children, or the homeless, or the sick, or the hungry, the News Council’s mission is to ensure that we get fair, accurate and balanced information about everything that goes on in our community and our society. And that’s really important, because the news media are so vital to our democracy. When the media get it right, we all benefit. When they get it wrong, we all suffer.

5. In the absence of a news council, what is the alternative?

Where do people go to get their reputations back if they have been damaged by inaccurate, unfair, incomplete, unprofessional or unethical stories about them? Good question. They have limited options. People can call, write and email news organizations to lodge complaints and seek corrections, clarifications or follow-up stories – but they may not get any real  satisfaction. They can now go online and use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or other social-networking sites to make their complaints more widely known – but many others may not see those posts. They can use some of the new tools such as NewsTrust and MediaBugs to critique stories and seek redress – but those also have far less readership than the original stories. If people are severely damaged, they can file a lawsuit for libel or defamation – but that will cost a lot of money, take several years, and they will likely lose. It’s extremely difficult to win such suits against the news media, which historically have great protections through our legal system. Successful libel suits are rare. News councils provide an alternative to litigation, which in theory both sides should welcome. But again, most media organizations resist this level of public accountability. We believe that when individuals or institutions admit errors, correct them, apologize and show a little humility, they are invariably more respected, trusted and even admired. News councils are no panacea, but they can help bridge the lack of trust between the news media and ordinary people.

We hope this is helpful. Thanks again for writing and please keep in touch. If it’s okay with you, we would really like to publish this exchange on our website to show our readers the kind of questions we get. Please let us know if it’s okay to publish your email and link to your project when it’s complete. It’s great to see activity internationally, especially given the difficulty of the situation here in the US, with the news media struggling in chaotic transition and public accountability systems like ours trying to survive and play a constructive role.

Best,

John Hamer
President and Executive Director

And Jacob Caggiano
Communications Strategist
Washington News Council

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The Washington News Council maintains public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy, and balance. See more about the Washington News Council.