WHAT IS A NEWS COUNCIL?
News councils, which are independent, nonprofit citizens organizations that function as "outside ombudsmen" for the news media. News councils provide a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics and performance. They are a meeting place for communities and their storytellers.
News councils offer a non-threatening, impartial way to explore, mediate and resolve citizen complaints about news coverage. They help citizens examine media ethics, and help journalists communicate more clearly about the purpose and techniques of journalism. They are great places to strengthen the ties between news outlets and their communities.
News councils are all strong defenders of the First Amendment. They don't want to interfere with the constitutional rights of the press. Because news councils offer a form of "peer review," they provide a defense against government control of the press.
Dozens of news or press councils exist all over the world. There was a National News Council in the U.S. from 1973 to 1984. Some journalists are skeptical of news councils, fearing that any form of outside accountability will have a "chilling effect" on aggressive reporting. Others argue that non-journalists cannot fairly scrutinize the press.
Many leading American journalists have endorsed news councils, including Bill Moyers, Jim Lehrer, Mike Wallace, Hodding Carter, Geneva Overholser, Al Neuharth, Gene Roberts and others. Bill Gates Sr. and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have been a premier supporter of the Washington News Council.
WHERE ARE NEWS COUNCILS NOW?
Councils exist in Washington state (founded 1998) and Minnesota (30 years). Complainants must waive the right to sue to qualify for a hearing. In Minnesota, half the complaints have been upheld and half denied since the news council started in 1970. 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. Participation by news outlets is entirely voluntary.
The Minnesota and Washington 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.
Minnesota News Council operates on an annual budget of about $220,000 with money contributed by the following: Media organizations 20%, non-media companies 40%, foundations 30%, individuals 10%
THE ORIGINAL COUNCIL
The National News Council was created in 1973 in New York City upon the recommendation of an independent task force of the Twentieth Century Fund, a research foundation. Conceived as a private, nonprofit organization, the council began operation with two basic objectives: to consider complaints brought against the media, whether by individual citizens or organizations, concerning alleged misstatements, inaccuracies, or unfairness; and to study possible infringements on the freedom of the press. Dissolved in 1984. Major issues addressed by the National News Council include First Amendment freedoms, journalistic ethics, censorship, the balance of free press and fair trial, conflict of interest, concentration of media ownership, journalistic hoaxes, and use of confidential sources.