News councils: a meeting place for communities and their storytellers

Fairness, accuracy, and balance. They've become media buzzwords, but what do they really mean?

Our community storytellers - the news media - sometimes need correcting. Yes, it's important to know how many people marched on the State Capitol, but citizens also want to know what's important and why.

News councils are one way to help encourage that conversation by holding news organizations accountable while respecting their autonomy. That's tough to pull off, and some journalists who think any form of accountability is "chilling" resist cooperating.

As someone familiar with two news councils in Minnesota and Washington State, I can offer firsthand testimony that news councils are great places for journalists and citizens to talk about news coverage, learn from each other, and strengthen the relationships between news organizations and their communities.

News councils provide a nonthreatening, neutral way to explore citizen complaints about media coverage, to examine ethics, and to communicate more clearly about the purpose and techniques of journalism.

The American public has made it clear that journalism as practiced today is not serving them well. Many viewers and readers have responded by simply turning off the TV or radio, or canceling subscriptions. Other consumers of news, overloaded with media babble, have found frequent "media fasts" crucial to their mental health. News councils offer better ways to reflect on what's working and what's not. Few institutions in today's culture are strong on reflection; this one encourages it.

While those of us on news councils don't want to put any restrictions on the First Amendment rights of the press, we think more dialogue about what serves communities best could be helpful. And we welcome multiple voices and perspectives often missing in our media - such as women who aren't part of the power structure, positive youth voices, and truly localized humor and entertainment.

The two news councils active today are independent organizations comprised of a mix of volunteers - 12 media people and 12 community members, who represent only themselves. The Minnesota News Council was created by newspaper publishers. The Washington News Council was created by media critics, retired journalists, and concerned citizens. Both have proved themselves important, impartial institutions holding up standards of the best in journalism.

Here's how the arbitration process works: The councils mediate between media organizations and individuals or groups who feel they've been harmed by media coverage but agree not to take the case to court. Often the situation is resolved by the complainant getting his or her perspective published, but otherwise a hearing is held and the council votes on the validity of each complaint. Though the council can't mete out punishment, the process is publicized, and that can have considerable weight.

Here in Washington, we've seen a local TV station chastised by the News Council for sensationalized, unbalanced reporting on inhumane treatment and meat safety at a slaughterhouse. And we've seen a local newspaper exonerated for news and editorial-page coverage of an official report on mob violence that erupted at a Mardi Gras celebration. We've also organized several public forums on subjects ranging from Iraq war coverage to how bloggers affect the news. And we do student mock news council hearings in college journalism classes.

Through a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami, two new news councils will form next year. The Minnesota and Washington State news councils will offer seed money of $75,000 to each of the two best proposals submitted by February 15, 2006. (Guidelines and application form can be found at the websites of the Minnesota and Washington news councils.)

News councils in other states could take a different form. They might be started by journalism schools, civic groups, media outlets - or, perhaps ideally, coalitions of these organizations. Would fairness and balance look different in California, Kansas, New York, or Florida? We welcome serious proposals. Doesn't every state deserve a news council?

Stephen Silha, president of the Washington News Council, is a freelance writer and communications consultant. His late father, Otto Silha, was publisher of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune when Minnesota created its News Council in 1970.

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