Accuracy. Balance. Fairness.
These three concepts are considered essential to good journalism. But what do they really mean? Often, journalists’ definitions aren’t the same as the public’s. That’s where the Washington News Council comes in. Our mission is to promote accuracy, balance and fairness in the news media by helping the public hold news outlets accountable for stories they produce.
The very idea that people can have a say about media behavior strikes many people as foreign. Some people are intimidated by the authority they feel the media possess. News councils are designed to open up lines of communication between citizens and journalists. They also provide an alternative to litigation, by giving individuals who feel damaged by a story an opportunity to hold the news outlet accountable without going to court.
A news council can help educate the public, not only about journalistic standards but also about the vital role citizens can and must play in holding the media accountable in a democracy. The Washington News Council has begun reaching out to the public and the media in this state to create awareness that will reduce the ethical and professional lapses that may lead to complaints.
To read the WNC’s Complaint and Hearing Procedures, click HERE or call or email us for a printed copy of our Procedures booklet. If you prefer to submit a hard copy, you can download our printable complaint form. Make sure you submit it with a signed waiver.
If you have any questions about the News Council’s complaint process, please call or email us. The Council’s process begins when a complainant submits a written complaint and signed waiver of the right to sue.
If the Council’s Complaints Committee (half media members, half public members) determines that the complaint is serious and substantive, the Council forwards a copy of the complaint and waiver to the news outlet involved and asks it to try to resolve the problem with the complainant within one month. If, after a good-faith effort, the complainant and the news outlet cannot resolve the complaint, the Council asks both parties to submit a final summation of their respective positions.
After careful review by the Council’s Complaints Committee, a hearing date may be scheduled. All relevant background material is sent to the Council’s voting members — half media professionals and half public members — prior to the hearing for their background. A complaint may be resolved at any time prior to a scheduled hearing.
The news outlet may decline to attend and participate, but the hearing will proceed anyway. The fact that a media outlet declines to attend does not prejudice the Council against it; it may still prevail on the merits of the case. The News Council has no authority — and wants none — to order any news organization to do, or not do, anything.
The Council’s purpose is to generate public discussion of the issues raised in complaints. People who bring complaints to us are not interested in recovering monetary damages; if they were, they would sue.
The Council holds open public hearings on complaints about news coverage. To be accepted for a formal hearing, complaints must be serious, significant and substantive. We will not accept complaints over trivial or minor matters.
Hearings are divided into three phases, all of which are open to the public and the media. During the first phase, the complainant(s) and representative(s) of the news outlet each give a brief opening statement. Lawyers for the parties may attend hearings, but they may not speak. In phase two, News Council members ask questions of both sides to clarify the issues in the complaint. During phase three, Council members discuss the merits of the complaint and then vote to uphold or deny the complaint, in whole or in part.
The media, especially including the news outlet involved in the complaint, are strongly encouraged to report on the Council’s deliberations and findings. Council staff will also prepare a press release, decision summary and other relevant information to be sent to the media statewide immediately after the vote. Media members of the Council do not represent the outlets for which they work; they participate as independent professionals. If a media member’s own organization is the subject of a complaint, the member recuses himself or herself from the proceeding. Similarly, if a public member’s organization is the complainant, he or she would be recused.
Why should the media participate?
Washington News Council members and staff firmly believe that the news media can benefit greatly by participating in the process. Among the potential benefits to the media:
1. Avoiding the cost and risk of lawsuits;
2. Hearing other people’s perspectives;
3. Learning from their mistakes;
4. Demonstrating humanity and openness to criticism, as opposed to aloofness and arrogance;
5. Having an opportunity to argue forcefully, outside their own newspaper pages, broadcast airtime, or online service, that they have reported aggressively in the public interest;
6. Helping the public better understand media values, ethics and practices.
The News Council also offers educational programs for high school and college journalism students interested in our complaint and hearing process. The Council sponsors mock hearings in which students act as Council members. They ask questions of the complainant and news outlet, played by Council staff or other students, and deliberate the merits of the case. Some of these cases will be based on actual news council cases. After voting to uphold or deny the complaint, the students can compare their determination with the actual outcome.
The Council’s staff and members also regularly speak to community, civic and other organizations statewide.
The mission of the Washington News Council is to promote fairness and freedom of expression in the news media grounded in responsible reporting and editing. To that end it encourages the public to become more knowledgeable consumers of the news and to hold the media accountable for the stories they produce. And it encourages the media to be open about how they make news decisions. The ultimate goals: better media, greater public understanding, and a stronger democracy.