Experts surprised by report of Minn. News Council’s closure

Monday, January 31, 2011

Two news-industry experts said today they were surprised by the news that the Minnesota News Council had announced it was shutting down after 40 years in operation. They both added, however, that it was remarkable the organization had lasted as long as it did.

Council President Tony Carideo said that fewer complaints by the public and reductions in corporate funding were the main reasons the organization was closing down. He announced the decision at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention in Bloomington on Jan. 27.

Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review, said the Minnesota council’s longtime success made its shutdown unexpected.

“While news councils have hardly flourished in the U.S., the Minnesota News Council was part of the journalistic landscape for a long time,” Rieder said in an e-mail to the First Amendment Center Online. “It seemed like one of the rare successes in the world of news councils.”

News councils look into complaints by the public about news coverage, such as inaccuracy and bias. The Washington News Council’s mission describes the purpose of news councils: “To help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by creating a forum where the public and the news media can engage each other in examining standards of journalistic fairness and accountability.”

One of the reasons news councils have failed to catch on, Rieder said, is that “the deck is stacked against them. To succeed, they need the willing participation of the news organizations they plan to scrutinize, both in terms of participating in the process and helping to fund the council. The opposition of major newspapers is what killed the National News Council. The longevity of the Minnesota News Council was an impressive anomaly.”

According to a report by the National Newspaper Association, the National News Council operated from 1973-1984. Current news councils include the Washington News Council, the Media Council of Hawaii and the New England News Forum.

Paul McMasters, former First Amendment Center ombudsman, said he also was surprised by the news, saying the Minnesota council was one of the “big dogs” in its arena and that it had “lasted longer than most such efforts, primarily because it had the support of a lot of the newspapers in the state, which is not always the case.”

Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota since 1999, said she was not surprised by the council’s demise. She wrote in an e-mail to the First Amendment Center Online that although she wasn’t on the council, she had observed it at work several times over the years and knew that it “had been in financial trouble, and was struggling to support itself financially and to find a way to be relevant in the new media world.”

Kirtley said the council “was, in many ways, uniquely ‘Minnesotan.’”

“This is a state that, at least historically, has been Scandinavian in its approach to problem-solving and dispute resolution,” she wrote. “So, it isn’t surprising that the MNC, to the extent that it succeeded, succeeded here and not elsewhere.”

Asked whether he supported the concept of news councils, Rieder wrote, “I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I believe very strongly that news organizations need to be held accountable. That, after all, is the reason journalism reviews exist. And news councils represent one approach to accountability.

“But there’s something about the notion of in effect putting a news organization on trial that makes me very uncomfortable,” he added. “Many distinguished journalists have resisted the concept because they fear it’s a step toward government control or oversight of the press.”

Kirtley also expressed reservations about the Minnesota council, saying she had shared those concerns with its last two directors. One problem was that “it was supposed to be non-governmental and extra-judicial, but for many years, was chaired by a sitting justice of the state Supreme Court.” She noted that more recently, a retired justice filled that post.

Another issue Kirtley cited was that the council “was voluntarily supported (financially and ‘morally’) by many Minnesota-based media, but those who did not support it were still subject to being brought before it involuntarily for a hearing, and could be tried in absentia if they refused to participate.”

Kirtley wrote that she was particularly bothered by the fact that the council “also took complaints from governmental entities (like city councils) regarding ‘fairness’ in editorials.” Some of these claims, she said, “were thinly disguised libel claims that the governmental entities would never have been able to bring in a court of law — and for good reason, in my judgment, because of the First Amendment protection for statements of opinion.”

Kirtley added that she supported in principle “the idea of giving individuals … a forum to raise complaints.”

McMasters said news councils did have “some value in providing an organized forum for the discussion of fairness and ethical issues in journalism,” but that there were many reasons that the concept of news councils hadn’t caught on.

He said many newspapers had failed to financially support, “or at least consistently support,” news councils. McMasters also said news organizations involved in a complaint didn’t always choose to participate in the process.

“On the public side, the councils’ policy of not materially punishing news organizations found wanting in their ethics or performance probably persuaded many not to file a complaint,” McMasters said. “Perhaps the most significant thing in the failure of councils, however, is the willingness of major news organizations to respond to legitimate complaints on their own and the option for those who feel they have been wronged to take their cases to court.

The Minnesota council’s Carideo says a reason complaints to his group have fallen is that people who disagree with news coverage now have almost instant recourse on the Internet through comment sections on stories, e-mail and Twitter.

Rieder said, “There’s a lot to this. There’s instant reaction to news coverage all over the Internet. The amount of commentary about journalism has increased exponentially in the Internet era. The amount of heavily reported analysis has not.”

McMasters, however, says he isn’t sure “how much a factor the Internet and social media have been. In fact, since there is usually no independent ‘referee of the facts’ in such instances, I doubt such a resource provides much satisfaction for either party.”

Kirtley noted that the Minnesota council had “tried for the past couple of years to do more community outreach and education, but the financial support simply wasn’t there from the non-media world.”

Carideo said most of the state’s newspapers had been supportive of the council since it began in 1970. The council’s endowment, worth around $270,000, will be transferred to a nonprofit affiliated with the MNA and likely will be used to support journalism education and professional training.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.