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"Media Oversight Council Formed"

—Headline, The Seattle Times,

August 27, 1998

What is the Washington News Council?

It's a new statewide organization created to provide oversight of the press and hear citizen complaints about the media. Its goals: to improve understanding between the media and the public, to promote fairness and accuracy in news reporting, and to protect media outlets from false charges or costly lawsuits.

How will the News Council operate?

If a reader, viewer, or listener feels personally damaged by a story that has been written or broadcast, and believes it is inaccurate, unfair, or incomplete, this person may file a complaint with the council. First, however, complainants must try to obtain satisfaction from the media outlet—a correction, clarification, letter to the editor, op-ed piece, or a meeting with reporters, editors, or managers. If complainants are still not satisfied, they may bring a formal complaint to the council. They first must agree not to sue the media outlet for libel or other damages. The News Council offers an alternative to

litigation.

Doesn't this violate the First Amendment?

No. The News Council is not a government agency. It has no legal authority to regulate, control, or penalize the media. It's an independent, objective, nonpartisan organization formed by a group of concerned citizens. Participation in the council's review process will be entirely voluntary, but the media have a strong incentive to participate. Making the media more accountable to the public will make people more trustful of the media—and improve the media's credibility.

Do any other states have news councils?

The Minnesota News Council (www.mtn.org/newscouncil) has existed since 1970. Hawaii has a news council, Florida is organizing one, and several other states are considering the idea. Most Canadian provinces have news councils, as do several other countries.

How does it work in Minnesota?

Its news council is widely respected and will be the "model" for the Washington News Council. Started by the Minnesota Newspaper Publishers Association, it is supported by the media, corporations, foundations, and individuals. The council has 24 members, half with some media background (including active editors and reporters) and half with civic, business, political, academic, or other experience, including average citizens. The council holds several open public hearings a year. Since it began, only 8 percent of complaints have gone to a formal hearing—and half of those cases have been decided in favor of the media.

Wasn't the Minnesota News Council featured on "60 Minutes"?

Yes. Mike Wallace of the CBS TV news magazine did a piece on the Minnesota organization that aired December 8, 1996. It focused on a complaint by Northwest Airlines against a Minneapolis TV station for a series suggesting that Northwest was unsafe to fly. The complaint was upheld by a 19-2 vote. Wallace, who used to oppose news councils, has become a strong proponent. So has Gene Roberts, former executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who said recently: "If it worked state by state [following the Minnesota model], they would earn a constituency."

Who supports the Washington News Council?

So far, the founding board includes: Patsy Collins, Jim Ellis, Bill Gerberding, Ken Hatch, Jeannette Hayner, Dennis Heck, Pat Herbold, Ron Judd, Mike Lowry, Stan McNaughton, Charles Royer, and Bill Ruckelshaus. This board will expand to be even more diverse. The organizing effort began after Watchdogs John Hamer and Mariana Parks met in June with Oren Campbell and Cliff Rowe, both college journalism teachers and co-founders of the existing Northwest News Council.

What's the Northwest News Council?

It was formed in 1992 by the Western Washington and Oregon chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. It has handled numerous complaints and has held four hearings—all in Oregon. It has never held a hearing in Washington. Although strongly endorsed by Mike Fancher, executive editor of The Seattle Times, and many working journalists statewide, the council was virtually defunct until the current effort began to reinvigorate it by creating a separate news council in Washington. A similar effort is under way in Oregon.

What will happen to the Watchdogs column?

Once the Washington News Council is officially registered as a nonprofit organization this month, the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion will cease to exist. We will stop publishing CounterPoint, our media critique newsletter, and this is our final Watchdogs column. The two roles—outside media criticism and objective media oversight—are simply incompatible.

How can you, as conservative media critics, be fair and objective mediators of complaints?

Neither John Hamer nor Mariana Parks will serve on the council, although one or both may help administer it. Council members will be selected with the help of the founding board, one of the most ideologically diverse coalitions ever assembled in this state. As Mike Fancher said in the Times article (8/27), he wants fair, honest evaluation of the news media, public involvement and education, and an independent forum where the public can bring its complaints. That's precisely what the Washington News Council will provide. "If there has ever been a time to do this, this is it," Fancher said. We completely agree.

Dozens of citizens have already endorsed the council. To add your name to the growing list of supporters, call 206-923-2955 or e-mail jchamer@msn.com.

 
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