APRIL FOOL! We’re not really closing our doors after all….

APRIL FOOL! The press release I sent out last Friday certainly got a big reaction: Lots of people thought it was true! (Or maybe a few hoped it was true….but no such luck.) It was just my idea of having fun — and some people (like my wife) think I have a strange sense of humor.

But to all those who ”bit” and called or emailed with condolences, congrats on a job well done, and inquiries about my next step, I would like to say….SOORRRRRYYYY! But also THANK YOU for the kind words and best wishes. And hey, since you think so highly of everything the News Council has accomplished, please remember that donations are welcome! Really!

In fact, we need to raise more funds this year to fully accomplish all of the great projects we have started in the past year. So please visit the ”Donate” page on our website, send us a check or call me with a CC# (Visa/MC). That’d be MUCH appreciated!

And this goes for all those who ”got” my little April Fool’s prank and called or emailed to share a laugh, too! Wasn’t brightening your April 1 well worth a donation to the WNC? Thanks in advance for all of your great friendship and generous support. It means a lot to me. No fooling.


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Washington News Council Honored; Will Close Doors on April 1

BREAKING NEWS: The WNC issued the following Press Release on April 1, 2011

The day after being named “Organization of the Year” at the Municipal League’s annual Civic Awards banquet, the Washington News Council announced today that it would close its doors.

“Mission Accomplished,” said John Hamer, President and Executive Director of the News Council. “We’re going out on top. What better time to declare victory, shut down and go home?”

The News Council was founded in 1998 to promote fairness, accuracy, balance, accountability and ethics in the print, broadcast and online news media in Washington state.

“The media in this state are now fabulously fair, amazingly accurate, beautifully balanced, absolutely accountable and endearingly ethical,” Hamer gushed. “That’s why everyone loves them so much. They’re doing a great job and simply don’t need us anymore.”

Hamer cited the “Top Ten Changes” in the news media since the News Council began:
1. They always tell the truth and get the facts right.
2. They make sure to tell all sides of every story.
3. They scrupulously separate news from opinion.
4. They shun sensationalizing or scandal-mongering.
5. They work for the public interest, not to win journalism prizes.
6. They clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
7. They encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
8. They admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
9. They expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
10. They abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

Hamer noted that the last five items come directly from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. “That’s all the News Council has ever asked – that they follow their own darn ethics codes,” Hamer said. “They’re finally doing that, and they deserve a pat on the butt.”

With the WNC’s closure, there are now no news councils in the United States to provide independent outside accountability for the news media and journalists. “So the watchdogs can just watch themselves from now on,” Hamer said. “And we know they’ll do a bang-up job!”

CONTACT: John Hamer, Ex-President and Ex-Exec Director, WNC (206.262.9793)

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Ethics of “Sting” Journalism. Can the TAO of Journalism help?

Watch WNC President and Executive Director John Hamer on KCTS Connects with host Enrique Cerna, discussing the NPR “sting” video and subsequent resignations of Ron Schiller and Vivian Schiller. This 12-minute excerpt also features Doug Underwood, journalism professor at the University of Washington. They focus on media ethics, public accountability and the WNC’s TAO of Journalism project. As Hamer correctly notes, ethics codes are voluntary, so should journalists work to build trust by pledging to be Transparent, Accountable, and Open?

Watch the full episode. See more KCTS 9 Connects.

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American Journalism Review reviews WNC, so WNC reviews AJR

When I got a phone call from a reporter for American Journalism Review (AJR) saying he was doing a story about news councils, I was both happy and wary. Happy because we don’t get much national coverage, especially from a prestigious publication like AJR. Wary because the reporter said he was a young editorial assistant at the magazine and had never even heard of news councils before his editor asked him to write about them.

But hey, I was a young reporter once and often did stories on subjects I was clueless about, so I gladly consented to an interview. I wanted to make sure he got the story right. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with him explaining how we operated, giving him background information, and referring him to other possible sources.

The story was just posted on AJR’s website. Overall, it’s not bad. Well-written, accurate and reasonably balanced, with several different perspectives and lively quotes. To his credit, the reporter called me back twice to double-check facts and run my quotes by me to make sure that’s what I said. Not enough reporters do that, so kudos to AJR.

The story focuses on the demise of the Minnesota News Council, which closed its doors in January after a 40-year run. The MNC was the model for the Washington News Council when we started in 1998. We essentially adopted their guidelines and procedures, as AJR correctly notes.

The story — also correctly — points out that we are the only surviving news council in this country that still hears formal complaints against the news media.  It states — correctly — that the WNC and the MNC, with funding from the Knight Foundation, held a national contest to start two more news councils in 2005 and awarded start-up grants to groups in New England and California. It notes — correctly — that the New England News Council changed its name to New England News Forum, and decided not to hear public complaints against media outlets, but just to host discussions about news-coverage issues. It states — correctly — that the California effort (actually, just Southern California) “never got off the ground.” (Why? Because its director moved to another state.)

For the most part, the AJR story gets it right. However, there are some points I take issue with.

1. HEADLINE — “Fading Away” is true for the Minnesota council, but our council is as vigorous as ever. We just matched a $100,000 challenge grant from the Gates Foundation, received a $10,000 grant from Microsoft, and were named “Organization of the Year” by the Municipal League of King County. We totally redesigned our website in the past year, with an active blog, a growing online community, a fun “What I Read” series, a NewsTrust.net widget, and other innovative features. We have lots of exciting plans for 2011 and beyond. We are by no means fading away. What’s more, news and press councils are proliferating around the world. For a global list, see the AIPCE’s website.

2. OMISSIONS — The story doesn’t mention the WNC’s latest really cool projects, including our “TAO of Journalism – Transparent, Accountable, Open” Pledge and Seal, which is gaining traction nationwide, and our unprecedented new OMG (Online Media Guide) for Washington state, which is generating great interest. Granted, the reporter’s space was limited, but surely there was room for a sentence or two about these efforts — especially since the story is a “web exclusive.”

3. QUOTES — AJR quotes some folks whose comments are debatable, to say the least. Tony Carideo, the last chairman of the MNC, says that the willing participation of news organizations is “absolutely critical” to the success of any news council. Well, maybe. But in our 13 years of operations, new organizations have never actually appeared at our complaint hearings to answer questions about the stories at issue. In each case, they responded in written statements or online, but were not willing to face the complainants and the council in an open forum. Carideo told AJR that if the news outlets don’t participate, “that doesn’t work.” Oh, really? He should ask King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, whose complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was upheld, or the Washington State Beef Commission and Dairy Products Commission, whose complaint against KIRO7 TV was upheld.  The process clearly worked for them, as it has for others who have come to us when they had no other recourse. The fact that the media organizations didn’t participate in person actually reflects more negatively on them than on us.

4. TECHNOLOGY — AJR quotes Carideo and Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation saying that with the Internet, online feedback to news outlets is much quicker and easier, so there is less need for a complaint-and-hearing process. However, both acknowledge that comments sections are often uncivil and unproductive, and a news council can provide more thoughtful analysis of media ethics and performance. Gary Gilson, former head of the MNC, says it is “absurd” to think that online access provides “any serious measure of accountability to the general public.” He’s absolutely right. People constantly tell me that we are needed now more than ever.

Newton is spot on when he states: “We still need to keep thinking of good ways to keep quality news and information about journalism on the table when complaints are discussed, but it looks like we need digital, real time ways to do it.” That is precisely what the Washington News Council is doing — and further evidence that we are not fading away. Instead, we are actively  reinventing ourselves in the digital media age. Want to help? Join our community. Talk back. Connect. Engage.

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Students nationwide take “TAO of Journalism” Pledge

Journalism students at Whitney High School (CA) take the TAO of Journalism Pledge.

“We want to show our readers and the larger journalism community that we stand by the ideals of being Transparent, Accountable and Open in our reporting and all of our practices as student journalists.” — The Roar, Whitney High School, CA

“Journalistic ethics are becoming even more critical to the practice of journalism as the field evolves….[We] like the simplicity of the pledge and the fact that it can apply equally and easily to citizen journalists, students, bloggers, professional journalists in all media.” — The Kerronicle, Kerr High School, Houston, TX

“Why are we doing it? Well, because we should.” — The Purple Tide, Chantilly High School, VA

Almost 1,000 student journalists from coast to coast have now taken the “TAO of Journalism” Pledge, promising to be Transparent, Accountable and Open in their practice of journalism. More than 850 of them nationwide took the Pledge during the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Journalism Week (Feb. 19-26). The quotes above are among comments emailed to the Washington News Council, which originated the TAO of Journalism concept and trademarked the TAO Seal.

The TAO Pledge and Seal allow journalists to make a public statement of ethical principles to help instill trust among their readers, viewers and listeners. The JEA endorsed the concept at the organization’s annual national convention in Kansas City last November. Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association and executive assistant at the WNC, attended the convention and led the endorsement effort. The TAO Pledge also may discourage school administrators from imposing prior review on student publications, JEA leaders believe.

The TAO Pledge — which is open to mainstream journalists, independent bloggers, freelancers, newsletter writers, or anyone else committing “acts of journalism,” asks journalists to publicly promise that they will be “Transparent” about who they are, “Accountable” and willing to correct any errors, and “Open” to other points of view. The idea, originally introduced at a Journalism That Matters gathering, is steadily gaining traction with media organizations and individual journalists worldwide as a way to help maintain public trust. (See Directory page on TAO website for a list of pledgers so far.)

After all, journalists want everyone they cover to be transparent, accountable and open. So why not them? It’s a two-way street. Those qualities always increase credibility and public trust in any institution or organization that adopts them. The same will be true for journalists and media organizations.

Any media group or individual journalist who takes the TAO Pledge gets listed on the TAO of Journalism website with a link to their publication and/or website. They can then post the TAO Seal in their masthead or on their website.

For some examples of how some sites are using the TAO Seal, see:

1. Spot.us

2. Common Language Project

3. De Standaard, Belgium

4. B-Town Blog

5. Fremocentrist

Student journalism organizations may take the TAO Pledge and display the Seal for free. Independent individual journalists are asked to donate $25 per year and media organizations (three or more staff) are asked to donate $50 per year to help support the TAO project’s website, maintenance and outreach. The Washington News Council is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, so donations are tax-deductible.

JEA is encouraging schools and student media to sign the Pledge  and to invite their school administrators to sign on, as well. Students receive a color poster of the TAO Pledge that can be displayed as a reminder of their commitment. In addition, student publications that took the TAO Pledge during Scholastic Journalism Week receive temporary stick-on “TAOttoos” of the TAO seal for all members of their staff. The Washington News Council ordered 3,000 of these to be mailed to TAO pledgers nationwide.

The TAO Pledge and Seal are open to anyone who is interested. Just TAO it!

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WNC Named “Organization of the Year” by Municipal League

The Washington News Council has just been named “Organization of the Year” by the Municipal  League of King County. Here is their press release, sent out today to news media statewide.

This is a great honor for our little non-profit organization. We would like to thank all of our friends, supporters and donors who helped make our important work possible over the past 12 months — and over the past 12 years — to encourage high-quality journalism and media ethics.

Other Civic Award winners this year include King County Sheriff Sue Rahr (Public Official of the Year), BECU – Boeing Employees Credit Union (Business of the Year), and Susannah Frame of KING5 (Government News Reporting). So we’re in really good company!

The Muni League, which turned 100 years old in 2010, is a highly respected organization that supports good government and public service in our region. Past winners of the “Organization of the Year” award include Futurewise, Seattle Works, Urban League, Intiman Theater, Real Change, King County Bar Association, and Pioneer Human Services. We’re honored to join this distinguished group.

The award will be presented at the League’s 52nd Annual Civic Awards dinner on March 31. We invite you to attend to help us celebrate the occasion.

I would personally like to thank the great team that helped “reinvent” the WNC in the past year: Kathy Schrier (executive assistant), Jacob Caggiano (communications strategist), Brian Glanz (web developer) and Heidi Dietrich (blogger, now with AOL Patch). Plus my terrific WNC Board Officers: Suzie Burke, Martin Neeb, Olivia Lippens and Shannon Frew. You’re the ones who really made this award possible.

Finally, special thanks to all the generous donors who supported the WNC and helped us meet the Gates Foundation Challenge Grant by raising $100,000 by Jan. 15, 2011, which was matched by the Foundation. We are determined to keep up this vital work and expand our activities in 2011 and beyond. With your continued support, we’ll do exactly that! Please call or email me with your ideas and suggestions. One last thing: WOO-HOO!

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WOO-HOO! We met the Gates Foundation Challenge!

Photo by Kslavin on Flickr available here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kslavin/1019160565/#/

The Washington News Council met the Gates Foundation’s Challenge Grant target by raising $100,000 in total donations by the deadline of Jan. 15, 2011. We received the Foundation’s matching check for $100,000 in the mail this week. We are extremely grateful to the Foundation for its continued generous support of the WNC and our important work.

This news is especially welcome because we recently learned that the Minnesota News Council, which was the model for the Washington News Council when we were founded in 1998, is closing its doors after 40 years. The MNC’s president, Tony Carideo, told the National Newspaper Association’s paper (January 2011 issue) that an inability to secure adequate funding and a decline in the number of complaints were primary factors. The council’s former executive director, Sarah Bauer, told me that she would move into the offices of the Minnesota Newspaper Association, which founded the MNC, as its program director.

Over the past 40 years, much of the MNC’s support came from that state’s newspapers and other media outlets, including local television stations. However, their funding declined severely in recent years due to the financial problems of the news industry in Minnesota.

In contrast, the Washington News Council was not founded by or significantly funded by news organizations when we began. We invited news outlets to join us and help shape our council, but nearly all declined. Instead, we sought and received funding and support from foundations, corporations, associations and many individuals — and thus did not rely on media donors (which some might consider a conflict of interest in any case).

Still, the WNC did copy the MNC’s by-laws, guidelines and procedures when we formed. We flew their then-director, Gary Gilson, to Seattle in September 1998 for our kick-off breakfast at the Washington Athletic Club. Gilson and I personally visited newspaper publishers and editors in Seattle, Tacoma, Longview, Vancouver and Spokane to tell them about the WNC and encourage them to participate. We pointed out that public accountability through an independent outside citizens’ organization such as ours could help increase their levels of credibility and trust. Most did not see that then, but many have since come to agree. Even some major media leaders who initially opposed the News Council have since written us checks, co-sponsored our events and supported our scholarship program. We thank them!

We are sorry to see the MNC go, but are glad to report that the WNC is now stronger than ever. We have just matched (for the second year) a $100,000 Gates Foundation challenge grant to sustain and expand our activities in 2011 and beyond. We have diversified our funding sources and redesigned our website. Our online community is growing steadily. Our TAO of Journalism pledge and seal is gaining adherents nationally and globally. Our new OMG (Online Media Guide) for Washington state is in the advanced beta stage. We are active participants in the Journalism That Matters organization, and I am part of JTM’s guiding “Collaboratory” group. We have now awarded 22 scholarships to students statewide. We recently held our 12th annual Gridiron West Dinner, an entertaining and successful “toast/roast” of five former Mayors of Seattle, and are planning our next event.

When I ask people if a news council is still needed, with all the new and easy ways of responding to the news media on the Internet, through comments, blogs, hyperlocal websites, Facebook, Twitter and other means, they tell me: “You’re needed now more than ever.” Why? Because if someone or their organization is damaged by inaccurate, unfair or unethical news reports, online digital response mechanisms may not be enough. The News Council is still here to help review complaints and provide recourse to those who are damaged by media malpractice. Our phone continues to ring with calls from potential complainants. In some cases, we counsel them on how to obtain corrections, clarifications and/or apologies. In some cases, we mediate compromises with the media outlet. In other cases, we may hold a formal public hearing. Increasingly, we are taking our complaint process online — such as in the “virtual hearing” we held on a complaint from Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Television. (Citizens upheld the complaint by overwhelming margins in a series of online votes.) Our website features a “Washington NewsTrust” section where the public can nominate and rate news stories, and we’re working with Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs to make his innovative bug tracking system applicable to Washington state news media and give citizens another new feedback tool.

Moreover, while the MNC’s demise means we are one of the only remaining news councils in the United States (New England and Hawaii have smaller but similar groups), respected and robust press councils exist in many nations around the world and their number is growing. Last year we joined the Association of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE), which has several members (like us) outside of Europe. (See their website for a full list.)

The Minnesota News Council inspired us to form and their closure is a loss for Minnesota citizens and journalists. But we’re alive and well, and committed to our mission of promoting excellence and ethics in journalism. As an article in the same January issue of the NNA’s paper put it: “Washington News Council reinvents itself on the Internet.” They got that right, and we will continue to reset, reboot, recreate and reinvigorate ourselves. If you believe that high-quality, accurate, ethical news media are vital to democracy, join us!

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Ira Glass on broadcasting’s “failure of craft”

A radio personality filling a concert hall with fans? That’s pretty rare, but it happened Aug. 21 when Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” (TAL) on National Public Radio (NPR) appeared at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. The place was packed.

Introducer Dan Savage, publisher of The Stranger, which co-sponsored the event along with KUOW-FM and Northwest Associated Arts, dead-panned that Glass “slept his way to the top…which sounds like fun until you remember he works in radio.”

Savage, who writes a sex-advice column, is a regular contributor to TAL. “He [Glass] keeps me around just for the sex advice,” Savage quipped, adding that “I know what Ira likes” but “I can’t tell you.”

(Glass is married. His wife is from Iraq, he said later in the program, and her family fled that country because of Saddam Hussein.)

After Savage’s intro, the house lights went out and Glass’s distinctive voice was heard: “I tried to talk them into doing the entire show in the dark, but they said no,” he joked. For those who find his voice somewhat affected, that’s really just the way he talks.

Glass described TAL – a program he originated in 1995 after 16 years as an NPR employee — as “applying journalism to things it doesn’t normally get applied to.” His goal is to add “fun,” “joyfulness,” and “surprise” to stories, he said. He noted that this “never happens in broadcast journalism,” which is “a failure of craft.”

Glass noted wryly that he used to listen to NPR stories thinking: “I would be a better person if I can get through this story.” The crowd applauded knowingly.

As TAL fans know – and they are a devoted group – Glass consistently tells interesting stories in an engaging way, unlike much of the broadcast media.

“Part of the job of journalism is not to describe what’s new, but to describe what is,” Glass said. “The world they describe is so much smaller than the real world.”

This is “one of the lousy things about doing journalism,” he added – i.e., that much reporting focuses on “massive, unsolvable” world problems. That “makes most of journalism such a drag and also makes it so inaccurate,” he said.

Describing broadcast journalists, he said that they sound like “talking robots….the esthetics of the language is so stiff” He called that “one of the reasons why journalism is having such a tough time now.” Television journalism is “doing terribly,” he said.

“The only people who are doing well is public radio,” Glass boasted – to more applause from his loyal fans. Seattle-Tacoma listeners on KUOW and KPLU make up TAL’s third-largest regional audience nationwide.

“Opinion in all its forms is kicking the ass of journalism,” he said. However, opinion and commentary – including much that is on NPR (even on TAL) – is clearly a major part of journalism. Surely Glass would acknowledge that. In fact, the lines between reporting and editorializing have crumbled, if not fallen.

Glass mentioned Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart as primarily news  commentators, adding that he’s a fan of Maddow and Stewart. As for Beck, he said: “That guy is fascinating,” but moved on without adding much detail. Too bad. Maybe Glass will do a story on Beck sometime. That would be interesting to hear.

Glass spent a lot of time talking about his approach to story-telling. A story is “not about logic, it’s not about reason, it’s about emotion,” he said. “You can use incredibly banal action to create suspense.” On radio, “you tell a story like you tell it in real life.”

He played several sample cuts, complete with the brief musical interludes that are a staple of TAL. His story about the veteran who allegedly dumped his wife’s ashes in a parking lot was fascinating; the story of the couple who went to a swingers’ party was really lame.

TAL’s basic formula is “action, action, action” followed by “thought,” Glass said. He noted wryly that he had “spent three years of [his] life inventing” that format – then realized that his rabbi did exactly the same thing, as did every other deliverer of religious sermons. In fact, he quipped, the entire Bible follows that formula!

TAL now has a staff of eight (it used to have four), and they review 25 to 30 ideas a week to produce three or four stories for the program. He invited the audience to suggest story ideas. (Hey, Ira, how about a story on the “TAO of Journalism”?)

“From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, we’re bombarded by stories,” Glass said – on television, radio, print, and the internet – but “it’s rare to have stories that we can empathize with and that can touch you.”

That’s TAL’s goal, he said: “We live in such a divided country, it’s rare to get inside somebody else’s shoes. That’s what we try to do.”

Glass got a standing ovation. Clearly TAL fans think he succeeds — and most of the time, he does. TAL plays a unique and valuable role in American journalism and in American life. More journalists – print, broadcast and online – could take a lesson.

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WNC Joins Global Press/News Councils Alliance

The Washington News Council has joined the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe. We’re not in Europe, you say?

True, but neither are several other press councils in AIPCE: Botswana, Israel, Peru, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Zambia, among others. It’s a big tent, this group, and their numbers are growing. (For more details, see What is a Press Council?) [Read more...]

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Who will hold the news media accountable?

OXFORD UNIVERSITY, ENGLAND – Is there a need for media accountability in the chaotic new world of online journalism? If so, who will hold the media accountable?

In-house ombudsmen? Outside news and press councils? Independent media critics?

The “blogosphere”? All of the above?

Those were among the existential questions at the Organization of News Ombudsmen’s annual convention at Oxford University from May 12-15. The gathering was hosted by the Reuters Center for the Study of Journalism, headquartered at Oxford.

I was invited to join a panel: “Press Councils and Ombudsmen: A New Partnership?”

[Read more...]

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