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How about a News Council?

The issue of media accountability is a lot like the weather. Everybody complains about it, but nobody really does anything. One notable exception is the Minnesota News Council. Minnesota News Council

It's quite possible that you've never heard of the Minnesota News Council (MNC), an organization that toils in relative obscurity, even within the media world. But the 35-year-old council functions as an important outlet for people who feel they have been treated unfairly by the press -- an intermediate step between the angry letter to the editor and and the expensive and desperate libel suit.

An unresolved complaint about a media outlet can be brought before the council, which conducts a public hearing before a panel of a dozen journalists and a dozen citizens. At the end of the hearing, the panel votes on the merits of the case and the results are widely publicized. To date, the council, a non-profit, has rendered a verdict on about 135 cases, with the rulings coming down almost evenly for and against the plaintiffs.

(According to MNC's executive director Gary Gilson, there was actually a national news council that expired in the early 80's, largely because The New York Times and Washington Post wouldn't participate. Could you imagine how much fun that would be today, with say, C-SPAN airing live coverage of the Dick Cheney v. Maureen Dowd case? Okay, I'm fantasizing.)

Now, back to reality. In an attempt to spread a good idea, the MNC and the Washington News Council in Seattle Washington News Council are offering $75,000 in grant money to fund two non-profits willing to start their own state news councils.

Here are excerpts from the release:

NATIONAL COMPETITION TO HELP LAUNCH TWO NEW STATE NEWS COUNCILS

Two state news councils announced today they will award $75,000 start-up grants to two nonprofit groups interested in launching new state news councils.

The Minnesota News Council, based in Minneapolis, and the Washington News Council, based in Seattle, will oversee a national competition for the grants.

The start-up funds were made possible by a grant of $250,000 to the Minnesota and Washington councils by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.

News councils are independent, nonprofit organizations that investigate complaints against news organizations and issue evidence-based rulings about their accuracy and fairness. They provide public forums where citizens and journalists can discuss media performance and ethics.

Application forms for the national competition are available at www.news-council.org, and www.wanewscouncil.org. Applicants must demonstrate the ability to raise additional funds, including a significant portion from media organizations, to support operations for at least three years. The application deadline is Feb. 15, 2006. Winners will be announced by May 2006.

"News councils that actually take the time to investigate a complaint before reaching a conclusion are a welcome relief from today's horde of self-appointed media critics offering froth without fact," said Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at Knight Foundation. "In an era of increased scrutiny of media practices, news councils provide a time-tested way to encourage fair coverage and public participation."

Worldwide, dozens of countries have press councils, including England, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Canada. In the United States, state news councils were started in Minnesota and Hawaii in 1970 and Washington in 1998.

Minnesota and Washington will award the start-up grants to groups that submit the most detailed and viable proposals. Applicants are strongly encouraged to form partnerships with print, broadcast and online media outlets, or with academic, civic and other organizations.

Grant applicants may be coalitions of citizen groups, media outlets, journalism schools, civic activists or business associations. They should be nonpartisan, diverse and representative of their states and communities. They must have or be seeking 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the federal Internal Revenue Service.

The Minnesota and Washington councils invite news organizations to address complaints against them in open forums, in the belief that this both helps journalists explain how they are acting in the public interest and helps them learn how to improve their service to readers, viewers or listeners.

Of the 1,650 grievances filed with the Minnesota News Council since its creation, 136 have been discussed at hearings. About half of the time, the Minnesota council has agreed with the journalists, half the time with the public. Of 20 complaints filed with the Washington News Council, only three have led to hearings. Two complaints were upheld, while others were dismissed as unwarranted or were resolved with the council's help.


CONTACTS: Gary Gilson gary@news-council.org (612.341.9357)
John Hamer jhamer@wanewscouncil.org (206.262-9793)

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According to Washington News Council executive director John Hamer, serious interest in establishing a council has been expressed in a number of states -- including Florida, Kentucky and Oklahoma -- and by a number of folks from schools such as the University of Arizona, University of Missouri and University of Southern California.

Any takers in Massachusetts?
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