How the last U.S. news council hopes to survive
You can forgive John Hamer for feeling as if he's the last of his kind. In a real sense, he is.
Hamer is president and executive director of the Washington News Council, the last operational news council in the United States.
Not too long ago, the council received what will be its final disbursement from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Thanks to the support of William H. Gates Sr., the Gates Foundation has provided $100,000 in matching-grant funding annually for the last three years to help keep the WNC operating. Now Hamer is hunting for new funding to keep the doors open after the Gates money is spent.
"It's a fragile existence," he told me. "When I got into journalism 35 years ago, I never thought I'd be doing this."
Understanding news councils
News councils, also referred to as press councils, are self-regulatory bodies that aim to provide a forum for members of the public to raise concerns and complaints about press coverage and media conduct. They provide a place for citizens and organizations to turn in order to get a fair hearing, without having to hire a lawyer and seek satisfaction in the justice system.
At the same time, press councils are meant to help ensure governments don't feel compelled to create legislation that may infringe on freedom of the press and freedom of speech. By taking care of our own house, the logic goes, the government won't feel tempted to try and restrain the press.
The oldest news council in the United States, the Minnesota News Council, closed early last year. It held its first hearing in 1971. Two years later, the National News Council was established as a larger initiative to bring press self-regulation to the United States.
"The national council, assailed by prominent critics like former New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal, limped along for 10 years before fizzling out," reported American Journalism Review.
Starting in the 1970s, news councils emerged in different states, such as Hawaii, but soon died out. Meanwhile, these entities are well established in Scandinavia and other parts of the world. The British Press Complaints Commission and its precursors have operated for decades. The PCC is about to be overhauled in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, which is expected to deliver a report in the fall.
Hamer would like to see news councils make a comeback in the United States. But at the moment he's more focused on ensuring the WNC is still operating this time next year. Hamer said he needs to find at least $100,000 in new funding for the WNC to survive.
“We are definitely in a kind of transition year," Hamer said. "We got the last Gates Foundation check earlier this year and we’ve spent some of it.”
To that end, the WNC recently held what may be seen, in the not too distant future, as a watershed moment in its rebirth, or a last gasp of a dying idea. The hearing showcased why news councils were useful in the first place, and why they could still be important to communities and the press. It also offered a glimpse into what a new type of more open and participatory news council might look like.
Chester Harris is a custodian at Leschi Elementary School in Washington state. He was also recently the target of what the WNC, a litany of complainants and other members of the public deemed an inaccurate, sensationalized and altogether shameful bit of reporting by Chris Halsne, an investigative reporter with KIRO7 TV news.
The evidence against Halsne's work is overwhelming. You can read summaries from The Stranger, Crosscut, Seattle Weekly and iMediaEthics. You can also watch a full video of the resulting WNC hearing here, and view Halsne's original reports here.
In May, Halsne broadcast three reports accusing Harris of violence towards students, along with other accusations that made the custodian sound like a danger to kids and the school.
The news council was flooded with complaints from parents and school employees, Harris' union, and other interested parties. Asked to respond to the concerns, KIRO issued a statement: "KIRO TV stands by its stories." It declined to participate in a mediation process or to engage with the news council.
That meant the WNC proceeded with what's usually a last resort: a public hearing. KIRO never responded to the WNC, school officials, parents, teachers, Harris, his union, or any of the journalists who subsequently wrote about the hearing.
“If you stand by your stories, okay, stand by them in public,” Hamer told me. “What is wrong with that? They don’t want to answer questions or face a fair-minded board of news council members who will ask probing questions.”
The WNC invited complainants and members of the public to the hearing. It also assembled a panel of current or emeritus members of its board, many of whom are or were journalists.
Just in case KIRO sent someone at the last minute, there was a chair and name card set up for the station. Its absence meant the hearing was conducted in the presence of an empty seat bearing a KIRO name placard. (Again, you can watch the full hearing online here.)
That empty chair may be a striking image, but it’s the hearing itself, and how it was conducted, that provides a glimpse at how Hamer is trying to make the news council relevant and establish its place in the American press.
“I fervently hope this will help,” he said.
Opening up the hearing
As with The Guardian's "open journalism" and other moves towards transparency in news, Hamer is hoping part of the salvation for the WNC lies in involving the public in more of the process.
One goal of the hearing was for the WNC panel to vote on a series of questions about KIRO, its reporter and the content of the reports. At the same time, everyone in attendance at the hearing was also invited to vote. So too were visitors to the WNC’s website.
No longer was a hearing just about a news council coming to a decision; it aimed to give the public a voice in evaluating the journalism in question. In the end, the votes from those in attendance and online were largely aligned with what the WNC panel decided.
The panel and the public voters -- about 40 members of the live audience plus another 40 who voted later online -- said the KIRO report was inaccurate, unfair and unethical; that it violated the privacy of students and/or put them at risk; it failed to reach out to those involved for comment; and it damaged the reputations of Harris, the school and others.
The WNC panel also voted that the station should retract and remove the offending stories, apologize and deliver a follow up.
Rather than just being a panel of insiders debating inside baseball and rendering a decision, the more open process gave the public a voice.
“We’re looking to establish the WNC as an online media forum, whether we use the Facebook page or the regular website,” Hamer said.
The website has a forums section that invites the public to engage in discussions about media ethics and the press. It's one step toward Hamer's goal of shifting a news council from a rather closed self-regulatory entity to something that works with the public and engages them on a consistent basis.
Along those lines, Hamer said he recognizes the importance of ombudsmen at media outlets, but said they can also come across as a “priesthood delivering a verdict from on high."
"Why not open it up to more voices?” he said.
David Boardman, the executive editor of The Seattle Times who says he and Hamer are friends, said the WNC's focus on public discussion and engagement is a welcome shift.
"For me if they went away would it matter? Yeah, I think it would be a loss to the community," he said. "Would I have said that five years ago? No, because then it was all about the hearings. What I find valuable about what they've done in the past couple of years is to help convene and organize meaningful conversations about the future of journalism."
Those conversations are happening at public events, in the WNC online forums, and also in local schools. The WNC makes materials and the videos of hearings available to high schools and colleges so they can be used to stimulate discussion about the press and the news.
Hamer called the two and a half hour KIRO hearing, "the best discussion of media ethics I’ve ever seen."
But will the kids or anyone else take time to watch and appreciate it?
Trust through engagement
There is one important reason why the American press council is nearly extinct: journalists by and large don’t support them. Especially when it comes to the public hearings.
While KIRO’s conduct is not the rule, Hamer says he is fighting against an unwillingness within the profession to be held publicly accountable and to support self-regulation.
“They don’t like the hearings, let’s face it,” he said. “The idea of public accountability and going in front of a group and answering questions and explaining what they did makes journalists really uncomfortable.”
Boardman, a member of Poynter's National Advisory Board, said hearings have become unnecessary in today's media world.
"With today’s technology it is so simple for a reader to challenge us, to complain to us and to hold us accountable," he said. "The council's greatest value is far more about education and community conversation than it is about accountability."
Hamer believes an independent body such as WNC has an important role to play in accountability, and that meditation and hearings have their place.
To that end, if the news council is generating public participation and helping create a new generation of media-savvy local news consumers, you can see how journalists and their employers may start to feel uncomfortable about ignoring a WNC hearing.
But for now, Hamer hopes that being more open can provide a path forward for the WNC, and inspire someone (or several people) to fill the $100,000 funding hole.
”With our new effort to expand our Online Media Forum, curating more thoughtful discussion among citizens and journalists, we'll move even farther in that direction," Hamer said. "Public trust through public engagement is our goal. Even thin-skinned, defensive and recalcitrant journalists can't argue with that, can they?"