Journalism Program chosen to create New England News Council

The Journalism Program has been awarded a $75,000 grant to establish a New England News Council to investigate complaints about the media and promote public trust in the news.

The startup funds, provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Fla., will support the first year of the New England News Council, according to Bill Densmore, who directs the Media Giraffe Project in the Journalism Program and will serve as executive director of the new council. The grant, which was made by news councils in Minnesota and Washington state, was announced June 30 during the “Democracy and Independence” conference on campus.

News councils are independent, nonprofit organizations that promote trusted journalism by investigating accuracy and fairness complaints against news outlets. They help determine the facts involved in disputes and provide open forums where citizens and journalists can discuss media ethics, standards and performance. Councils are already operating in Minnesota, Washington state and Hawaii and another is being created in Southern California.

The New England News Council will serve a six-state area with approximately 13 million residents. Based on a survey of regional news executives, Densmore said the council plans to launch a web-based forum that will gradually incorporate “hearing-and-determination-based media accountability.”

“The council will address issues related to all forms of media—new and traditional—and provide moderated discussions of issues,” says Densmore. “It will invite participation from ordinary citizens and professional journalists, who could explain their processes and values in a neutral environment.”

Densmore says the council will also study and report on broader topics, such as freedom of information, new approaches to gathering news and questions about elites.

“It will bring together segments of the industry that don’t normally interact—traditional editors with new media entrepreneurs—and allow direct contact with the citizenry and with broader issues than those seen at a single news site,” he says.

Although a national news council was created in the 1970s, its judicial approach alienated many in the media and the panel folded after 10 years. While many editors in the region expressed skepticism about reviving that model, says Densmore, they are more open to a different kind of news council, housed in a university or independent organization with less of a courtroom approach. “They felt something of that kind could increase credibility in the industry and could help journalists explain their value and processes to the public.”

The campus proposal, which was developed by Densmore and Journalism professors Norman Sims and Ralph Whitehead, says the council will initially operate under university sponsorship, but will eventually be part of a tax-exempt educational foundation. Financial support is expected from foundations, new organizations, affiliated academic institutions and individual private donations. An advisory board of 18-20 members will include citizens and a range of representatives from academic institutions, broadcast media, daily and non-daily newspapers and Web media outlets.

The council is expected to debut in the fall of 2007.