Many Americans believe that independence also implies a responsibility for the press to regulate itself, or at least to make itself more accountable and open to public scrutiny.
by Bob Caldwell
News organizations in the United States are responding, albeit often reluctantly, to increasing consumer complaints in a number of ways that demonstrate their accountability, says Bob Caldwell, who has been a writer, editor and ombudsman with The Oregonian, the largest daily newspaper in the Pacific Northwest.
Although the policies, practices and quality of the news business in the United States have become the targets of a renewed wave of public and political criticism in recent years, the industry has been surprisingly ineffective in responding to this disapproval.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, of course, grants the press broad rights and makes government regulation -- beyond the limited scope of libel laws -- a virtual impossibility. As valuable as a free, independent press is to the proper functioning of America's democracy -- and it is impossible to overstate its importance in that respect -- many Americans believe that independence also implies a responsibility for the press to regulate itself, or at least to make itself more accountable and open to public scrutiny.
American courts once granted broad latitude to the press in order to encourage discussion of public and governmental affairs. In the late 1960s and 1970s, it was extremely difficult for public officials and public figures to win libel judgments against news organizations. But in more recent years, concerns that the press has misused that latitude to invade the privacy of public figures -- whose private conduct may have no bearing whatever on the democratic process -- have resulted in court decisions that have narrowed the media's latitude. Public perceptions of the media have changed, too. Readers and viewers routinely return low ratings when they are asked to assess the credibility of the media; more and more Americans seem inclined to judge the quality of the media by the conduct of its least responsible practitioners.
A recent case in which a U.S. supermarket chain successfully challenged the covert methods employed in a television news investigation of the market's alleged improper food-handling practices -- but not the accuracy of the network's story -- promises to ignite yet another round of scrutiny of media methods, regardless of how the case is decided on appeal.
The news council plays two roles that should be considered vital to the news media: It independently explains to the public how the media work and it serves as an alternative to the courts as a method of resolving disputes.
| Newspapers have come a little further
down the road from the days in which they debated whether even to acknowledge
their common, everyday errors, but not very far. Gary Gilson, the executive
director of the Minnesota News Council, points out that most newspapers
treat corrections perfunctorily. He thinks more news organizations should
follow the example of The New York Times, which offers, along with
daily corrections, occasional lengthy examinations of the paper's journalistic
quality in a feature called Editors Notes.
Gilson's organization, established by newspapers and television stations in Minnesota in 1971, has not been widely copied although its success is no longer a matter of serious debate. The Minnesota News Council investigates complaints about the news media, conducts hearings and issues findings in a quasi-judicial process. It receives its financial support from the news media, Minnesota businesses and other non-governmental sources. Since its inception, the 24-member council (12 from news organizations and 12 from other walks of life) has considered 1,560 complaints and adjudicated 107. It has found against the news media in roughly half of its cases.
The Minnesota News Council's approach to disputes about media quality recently received national attention when the popular CBS-television magazine show, 60 Minutes, featured the council's decision to criticize a Minneapolis-St. Paul television station for its handling of an investigation into Northwest Airlines, which has its headquarters in Minneapolis.
The council's findings suggested that the station took good information -- Federal Aviation Administration reports that were critical of the airline's maintenance practices -- and mishandled it. The station overlayed the maintenance story with a broad, and baseless, tale of intrigue and employee intimidation that, the news council found, unfairly tarred Northwest Airlines.
Viewers of 60 Minutes could easily have concluded that the council's role was partly to intimidate the Minneapolis television station, thus exerting a chilling effect on its willingness to pursue news stories aggressively. But the general manager of the station (who took over after the Northwest Airlines report) said the station would continue to support the council and its efforts.
Interestingly, both the station and Northwest Airlines are financial contributors to the Minnesota News Council. Gilson said the 60 Minutes story has prompted a flurry of interest in the news council's activities from around the country, mostly from people outside the news business.
The news council plays two roles that should be considered vital to the news media: It independently explains to the public how the media work and it serves as an alternative to the courts as a method of resolving disputes. People with complaints before the Minnesota council, for example, must agree in advance to forego legal action against the media companies that are the targets of their complaints. Considering what newspapers and television stations spend on attorneys' fees and libel insurance, they should be receptive to the news council idea.
But they are not. Attempts to start a national news council
and an effort to establish councils in Oregon and Washington
state in recent years have failed. Outside of Minnesota, the
Honolulu (Hawaii) Community Media Council -- which was
established about the same time -- appears to be the only
functioning news council in the United States.
My own experience, as a reporter, editor and publisher for more than 20 years, certainly did not prepare me for the onslaught of inquiry, concern and criticism that I encountered upon becoming the first ombudsman in the history of my newspaper.
Another model of accountability and self-criticism is the
ombudsman, or reader representative, inside a news organization.
The ombudsman is usually a staff member who is given a certain
amount of freedom to pursue inquiries and complaints from
consumers. The more freedom granted the ombudsman, the better,
of course. Some newspapers, like The Washington Post and
The Seattle Times, have tried to assure the independence
of ombudsmen by employing them on non-renewable contracts.
Despite the examples set by some leading news organizations --
The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe
and CBS News, for example -- media companies have shown a
distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea of establishing news
ombudsmen. There are more than 1,500 daily newspapers in the
United States. However, fewer than 40 have news ombudsmen.
Art Nauman, who is the driving force behind the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), one of the smaller professional associations in American journalism, says that ONO's American membership has remained at or near its current 36 members for nearly two decades. Interestingly, the organization s foreign membership has grown in recent years. It now includes about 20 ombudsmen from other countries, including Japan, Spain, Israel, Mexico and Brazil. In 1997, for the first time in its history, ONO's annual meeting will be held outside the United States, in Barcelona, Spain.
Gilson suggests that news councils, ombudsmen and just plain straight talk from news organizations fills a vast unmet need for American news consumers. You would hope you would find more of a thirst for talking straightforwardly to the reader about what goes into decision-making and acknowledging shortcomings, he says. A time when the news business is terribly concerned about the loss of readership and trust is a time when it should be more open.
It is difficult to understand why the concept has not been embraced by the news business. Some newsroom editors and managers say that the editing and checking of accuracy is always done with the consumer in mind and therefore more formal efforts at accountability are unnecessary. But anyone who has ever set foot in a working newsroom knows that readers and viewers are rarely seen or heard there.
My own experience, as a reporter, editor and publisher for more than 20 years, certainly did not prepare me for the onslaught of inquiry, concern and criticism that I encountered upon becoming the first ombudsman in the history of my newspaper, The Oregonian. My job description was fairly typical of newspaper ombudsmen across the United States. I was to take reader complaints and address them inside the newsroom by whatever means was appropriate. This meant passing along the complaints to reporters and editors via memo and a periodic internal critique. It also meant writing a weekly column on reader complaints and other issues involving the paper's journalistic quality. Sometime my column was critical of The Oregonian,. sometimes it defended the paper against reader criticism.
On a typical Monday, I would be greeted by 20-40 telephone messages from readers. A typical week would see dozens of letters, faxes and electronic-mail messages from readers. I heard more direct criticism and concern about our newspaper -- and American journalism in general -- in two years as reader representative than I had in the previous 20 years. Other ombudsmen report similar experiences.
Editors who think they can adequately listen to consumers without assigning someone to the job are simply kidding themselves. Some editors and publishers like being more visible in the community than maybe they did 20 years ago, says Elissa Papirno, the reader advocate for The Hartford Courant. So they take on the reader representative role. In reality, they just don't have the time.
Papirno and other ombudsmen suggest, too, that news people are perhaps more thin-skinned than the people they write about. This makes them less willing to support formal self-critique, even while consumers clamor for it.
"Sometimes you wonder if it wouldn't be better if newsroom people took the flak directly, Papirno says. That might change their behavior." But news people are only human and it is all too human to be defensive about your own work. If you add in the prickliness with which American journalists defend perceived threats to their independence, you do not find many active listeners in newsrooms when it comes to outside criticism.
In addition to connecting with readers, news organizations must make a greater effort to hear their critics, think about the criticisms and then address them.
| There are, of course,
other methods of connecting with readers and other ways to make news organizations
accountable. Arnold Ismach, a professor at the University of Oregon and
sometime consultant to the Minnesota News Council, points out that the
vigorous growth of press criticism in the alternative press, magazines,
national newspapers and the Internet has advanced that cause. This development
also may have reduced the need for news councils, ombudsmen and other
formal accountability methods. Organizations such as the Society
of Professional Journalists and the Associated
Press Managing Editors group have adopted and distributed model codes
of ethics, which some news organizations try to follow.
Additionally, there are plenty of examples of self-restraint in the American news media that do not involve any formal action. Most American news organizations, for example, decline to print the names of rape victims, even though those names are on public record in every courthouse and police station in the country. By withholding the name, the media agree to safeguard the privacy of the victim. In a case involving the larger American community, the editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times decided to accede to the terrorist Unabomber's demands and print his rambling anti-technology manifesto in exchange for his promise to put a stop to his mailing of letter bombs. In an ironic development, the manifesto's style and content -- which the papers never would have printed without his demand and threat -- led directly to the arrest of the suspect.
The Sacramento Bee's Art Nauman points to his own newspaper s effort to connect with readers through a variety of ways, including improved telephone access of writers and editors and the paper's active participation at community meetings. Such efforts are becoming more common throughout the country. Says Nauman: "Anything a newspaper can do to understand, or listen to, or connect to its readers builds credibility."
At their best, those efforts assure consumers that news organizations have an interest in their community and in improving their news products. In addition to connecting with readers, news organizations must make a greater effort to hear their critics, think about the criticisms and then address them. In short, they need to take the advice offered by Gina Lubrano, the reader representative for the San Diego Union-Tribune. "My role," she says, "is to be the conscience of the newspaper."
A Free Press: Rights and Responsibilities
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