Southern California and New England launch independent news councils

[Knight Foundation announcement]

The Minnesota News Council and the Washington News Council, today announced that Southern California and New England were the winners in a national competition to create two new local news councils.

Southern California and New England now become the fourth and fifth news councils in the United States, joining those in Minnesota, Washington state and Hawaii.

News councils are independent, nonprofit organizations that promote trusted journalism by investigating accuracy and fairness complaints against news outlets. They help determine the facts involved in these disputes, and provide open forums where citizens and journalists can discuss media ethics, standards and performance.

The new news councils will each receive a $75,000 startup grant, given by Washington and Minnesota from funds provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.

The Southern California News Council will temporarily reside at the Journalism Department at California State University, Long Beach, with the goal of forming an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It will cover the state from Santa Barbara south.

The New England News Council will reside in the Journalism Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and will cover the six New England states.

Organizing committees include journalists, academics and members of the public. Both councils will invite the participation of a broad and diverse range of citizens who care deeply about the vital role of news media in a democracy.

The grant awards will be announced Friday, June 30 at concurrent presentations in Long Beach and Amherst.

An informal advisory board for the project includes journalism leaders Merrill Brown, Fabrice Florin, Dan Gillmor, Loren Ghiglione, Cyrus Krohn, Phil Meyer, Bill Moyers, Jay Rosen, and Jan Schaefer.

The birth of these news councils coincides with a growing trend toward openness and accountability in the news media driven by the new era of two-way communications marked by the emergence of the Internet.

“A news council or any inquiry that seeks out the real facts behind media complaints is better than a blogger working from opinion alone, and vastly superior to the talking heads on cable TV with their pre-fixed political menus,” said Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at Knight Foundation. “This project is an experiment to see if there is local support for the idea that a good way to perform media criticism is not through kangaroo courts of commentators but through the fair, accurate, contextual pursuit of the truth.”

“News councils are an idea whose time has come – again,” said Stephen Silha, president of the Washington News Council board. “Every state deserves a news council.”

“If the news media want to restore their eroding credibility with the public, they should embrace the news council concept,” said John Finnegan Sr., chairman of the Minnesota News Council board.

In Minnesota and Washington, the news councils comprise two dozen or so members from the public and the news media, who represent only themselves, not their employers. They listen to unresolved complaints and media responses at a public hearing, investigate the facts behind the complaints, and then offer their view as to whether or not the complaint is valid. 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.

Both the California and New England councils plan to engage the public and the media through the Internet, through interactive forums on journalistic standards and ethics. 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.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey