What is the Washington News Council?
The Washington News Council is an independent, nonprofit, statewide organization whose members share a common belief that fair, accurate and balanced news media are vital to our democracy. We have been called an “Outside Ombudsman” or even “Better Business Bureau” for the news media in Washington state. We believe that a free press helps keep America strong, but with First Amendment rights come great responsibilities. We hold the news media publicly accountable for their performance, just as the media hold other institutions in our society publicly accountable. We also encourage open public dialogue among citizens and journalists regarding news media standards and ethics.
We also promote high standards of ethics, accuracy and fairness in the new citizen journalism, including independent blogs, hyperlocal neighborhood websites and other online news and information sources.
Who is on the Washington News Council?
Here is a list of our members. Our Board of Directors and Hearings Board (members emeritus) may all participate in formal hearings and vote on the validity of citizen complaints against the news media. Our Board of Directors members oversee the organization’s strategy, operations and finances. All council members represent a wide range of backgrounds and professions, including the news media.
How does the Washington News Council operate?
If readers, viewers or listeners feel personally damaged by stories that have been written or broadcast about them (or their organization), they may file a formal complaint with the Council. Complaints must address serious questions of journalistic fairness, accuracy, balance or ethics. The Council process is an alternative to litigation. Complainants must agree not to sue the media outlet for libel or other damages. We first urge complainants to seek a resolution with the media outlet — a correction, clarification, letter to the editor, op-ed piece, or a meeting with reporters, editors or managers. If no resolution is possible, the Council may convene a formal complaint hearing, where both sides are invited to make their case in an open public setting. Council members vote on whether to uphold the complaint and publicize their decision to media statewide, which are also urged to cover the proceeding. Complaint hearings are taped and DVDs are available to the press and public. They are also broadcast on TVW, Washington state’s C-SPAN, and may be streamed on the WNC website.
Doesn’t this violate the First Amendment?
No. The News Council is not a government agency. It has no legal authority to regulate, control or penalize the media. It’s an independent, objective, nonpartisan organization formed by a group of concerned citizens. Half of the Council members are current or former media professionals, and half are from a wide range of other professions. Participation in the council’s review process is entirely voluntary. But the media have a strong incentive to participate because being more accountable to the public will make people more trustful of the media. Public-opinion surveys have shown that a strong majority of citizens believe a news council can help improve their local news media. Significantly, support is highest among those who believe their local media already do a good job of covering important issues, presenting facts accurately, and reporting news in a fair and balanced way. The WNC supports Transparency, Accountability and Openness in media organizations and among individual journalists — a concept known as the “TAO of Journalism”
Do this state’s media support the News Council?
In addition to our Council members from the media, we have many individual members of the print, broadcast and online media supporting us around the state. We have invited all members of the media to get involved and help shape the council’s activities. Many media members have participated in WNC panels or discussions, attended Gridiron West Dinners, and made financial donations to the Council.
The Seattle Times co-sponsored a speaker series with the WNC in 2008, and has hosted several WNC meetings in The Times’ auditorium.
Do any other states or countries have news councils?
The Minnesota News Council has existed since 1970 and was the model for the Washington News Council. Hawaii and New England both have news councils or similar organizations. Dozens of other countries around the world have had press councils for decades, including England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Most European countries have press councils, and many are members of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE). Several other countries have councils, including Botswana, Israel, Peru, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Zambia, and new ones are springing up worldwide.
How does it work in Minnesota?
Started by the Minnesota Newspaper Association, their council is widely respected and is supported by the media, corporations, foundations and individuals. The council has 24 members, half with some media background (including active reporters and editors) and half with civic, business, political, academic or other experience. The council holds several open public hearings a year to consider complaints. But since it began, only 8 percent of complaints have gone to a formal hearing, and half of those cases have been decided in favor of the media. It also holds seminars on media-related topics, publishes a newsletter, maintains a Web site, and hosts a cable-TV program. Their council is our model.
Who staffs the Washington News Council?
John Hamer is our president and former executive director. He is a longtime journalist and former member of The Seattle Times’ editorial board. Kathy Schrier is our part-time executive assistant and also executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association. Jacob Caggiano, Heidi Dietrich, Brian Glanz and Monica Tracey work on contract for the WNC. Council board members regularly volunteer their time. We also hire student interns. See also: a list of Council Members and our Mission Statement