Last press council in U.S. will close next month

“It’s a fragile existence,” John Hamer, the executive director and chair of the Washington News Council, told me the last time we spoke.

It was August of 2012, and the WNC had just received its final grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Hamer needed to find new funders.

Funding proved challenging to secure, and the WNC’s board also recently concluded that the organization’s role itself needed to be completely reimagined.

Those factors led to a decision, announced yesterday,  to close the WNC on May 31.

“We had a great 15-year run, and we helped a lot of people who were damaged by media malpractice,” said Hamer, in the announcement. “But the news media have changed tectonically since we began. The eruption of online digital news and information made our mission of promoting high standards in journalism much more difficult, if not impossible. How can anyone oversee a cyber-tsunami?”

When I spoke to Hamer by phone today, he said that he’s proud of the WNC’s work but that the main challenge was figuring out the role for “a citizens group that cares about high quality journalism” in this day and age.

Though the WNC and its website will end, Hamer said they will continue to keep the TAO of Journalism website going. It’s a project that invites journalists to pledge that they will be Transparent about who they are, Accountable for their mistakes, and Open to other points of view.

The closure of the WNC means the United States is without a press council that conducts independent reviews of media coverage based on complaints from members of the public. (What had been the oldest news council in the United States, the Minnesota News Council, closed in 2011.)

As someone who has interviewed Hamer and received many emails and press releases from him over the years, I can attest to the fact that he worked hard to drum up support and awareness the WNC and its activities.

But when Hamer announced in January that he was going to retire, it was hard to imagine someone filling his shoes. The WNC board spoke with candidates, but soon concluded that “a complete reinvention was needed, not just a new Executive Director.”

It was a tall order for the News Council to find a new executive director, engineer a complete rethink of the organization’s role, and continue to secure funding — all at the same time.

The reason for a rethink of the WNC is what Hamer mentioned in his statement: the rise of digital media platforms, and the massive change they brought to the news industry. The WNC was focused on holding local news outlets accountable, so it’s not as if it needed to police every publisher that popped up online, everywhere. But even that local focus wasn’t tenable, when anyone can be a publisher, according to Hamer.

“Who can oversee ethics on blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and all the other social media platforms?” he said in the announcement. “We’re all deluged daily with factoids, sound bites, rumors, opinion and commentary. Citizens just have to make up their own minds about who can be trusted in the media today.”

A press council without the press

There’s also another reason the WNC — and indeed every American effort of its ilk — faced difficulty. Many of the newspapers, TV and radio stations that were the primary focus of the Council’s efforts were often reluctant, or even refused, to participate in the process.

Hamer acknowledged that fact when we last spoke.

“They don’t like the hearings, let’s face it,” he said of many, though not all, local news organizations. “The idea of public accountability and going in front of a group and answering questions and explaining what they did makes journalists really uncomfortable.”

An example of that was showcased when the WNC held public hearings related to a series of reports broadcast by TV station KIRO7. The reports made accusations against a custodian at Leschi Elementary School in Washington state. (For background, see summaries from The StrangerCrosscutSeattle Weekly and iMediaEthics. Simply put, the reports were terrible journalism.)

KIRO wanted nothing to do with the hearings, and in fact offered almost nothing in response to the media reports about its conduct prior to the WNC hearing.

That hearing showcased a more open model that Hamer thought might be a way forward in the digital age.

Along with the Council, members of the public who attended the hearing were invited to vote on questions related to the accusations against KIRO. The WNC recorded its hearings and made them available online, even webcasting some. It invited online viewers to vote and also worked with local schools to use videos as teaching tools to spur discussion of media and ethics.

A loss of accountability

At the time, I spoke with David Boardman, then the executive editor of The Seattle Times and now the dean of Temple University’s School of Media and Communication, about the WNC. He said he felt the hearings were unnecessary in today’s media world, but that the efforts to spark meaningful discussions about media were valuable. (Boardman declined to attend a WNC hearing last year, saying “it has all the markings of a public trial.”)

“With today’s technology it is so simple for a reader to challenge us, to complain to us and to hold us accountable,” said Boardman, who is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. “The council’s greatest value is far more about education and community conversation than it is about accountability.”

Hamer also told me that “I’m the first to admit our [public hearings] process is a bit outmoded, outdated, clunky and takes too much time.”

It’s true today we have partisan media watchdogs, a slew of media reporters, as well as vocal individuals and groups who speak out when they have concerns. They can make their voices heard on social media, in direct feedback to the outlet in question, and via other means. This happens increasingly in real-time.

But even with the undeniable — and beneficial — increase in scrutiny of journalists’ work, we still lack a framework whereby media organizations willingly and meaningfully participate in a process of accountability. (Some organizations employ ombudsmen; but that role is on the decline in North America.)

Scrutiny and criticism of the press abound; but they aren’t necessarily the same as accountability.

When the story is about their work, KIRO and its ilk still circle the wagons and refuse to talk, or release variations of “we stand by our reporting” and nothing more.

The death of the WNC is not surprising, but it does highlight the need for new and better ways to hold journalists and media outlets accountable for what they report.

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