It is easy to dismiss the proposal for a national press council as “out-dated.” Even the world “press” conjures up images of reporters from the previous century wearing a sign in their hats that said “Press.” But media ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward explains why we should not dismiss the idea for a national press council outright. 

By Stephen J.A. Ward

Newspapers Canada, an industry voice, is soliciting feedback on behalf of the provinicial press councils for a national press council to be launched in 2015.

Like the existing press councils, it would adjudicate what the public believes are violations of journalism ethics in stories. The national council would be divided into four regions and act as a clearinghouse. If council staff could not immediately resolve a complaint, the problem would be sent to one of the four regions. The national council would bring greater unity to the press council process, different from the current province-based council system.

In theory, press councils are an important element of the “media accountability system” of a country — the ways that citizens hold the media accountable and responsible. Other elements are ombudsmen and public editors. Laws are one way to hold the media accountability. But the idea of a self-regulating free press inclines many journalists to favor non-legal mechanisms for hearing complaints, such as councils.

The press council system in Canada is characterized by these limiting features:

  1. Media-specific: Broadcasters have their councils, the press (newspapers) have theirs; and so on. There are no councils for online bloggers, non-mainstream web sites or social media journalists.
  2. Profession-centric: Councils are funded mainly by professional mainstream media, and they hear complaints against the same.
  3. Limited in number and scope: Press councils do not exist in all parts of Canada. Neither councils nor ombudsmen are plentiful in Canada, and less so in the United States. An experiment with a national press council in the USA crashed in the early 1980s. The last press council in the USA — for the State of Washington — closed its doors earlier this year.
  4. Limited in funding and diversity of funding: The councils are often funded insufficiently by industry sectors.

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This structure was established in Canada in the previous century. How does it fit the media world in which we live today? We live in a global media world where the very term “press” sounds old-fashioned, where boundaries between kinds of media and media practitioners blur, where much of the journalism is online and non-professional, and where many Canadians have little knowledge of press councils. Citizens — pointing to the media phone-hacking scandal in Britain — are skeptical of the ability of journalists to police themselves, especially if policed by a body controlled and funded solely by the news industry itself.

It is easy, then, to dismiss the proposal for a national press council as “out-dated.” Even the world “press” conjures up images of reporters from the previous century wearing a sign in their hats that said “Press.”

I do not dismiss the proposal. To the contrary, I welcome, as a matter of principle, any attempt to enhance Canada’s non-legal media accountability system. So I welcome the initiative, even if it only manages to stimulate debate. In the end, it may only enhance accountability in one struggling sector of our media system, newspapers, and their online products. But we should not look askance at any enhancement in any part of our news media system. Newspapers still have impact on the country at large.

However, I wonder how we can make press councils more effective and well-adjusted to the global media world. Here is a list of things that a designer of a national council system should consider, starting from the most general considerations.

Expand the council’s role: The mandate for councils has been narrow and reactive, not wide and pro-active. It waits until a citizen complains and its judgment is restricted to the one story and the one media outlet in question. But what if we imagined a national council that had the resources and mandate to partner with other groups to study systemic issues such as media diversity and the treatment of minorities? What is the council took on an active educational role in convening public town halls, online or in person, on ethical issues? What is the council supported in-depth case studies of media conduct and coverage of major controversial events? What is a council had enough partners and support to issue (or help to issue) an annual state-of-media-ethics in Canada report?

Construct multi-media councils and codes: No matter what happens to the proposal, we still need to transcend media-specific councils. Canada’s public sphere needs councils (or public agencies) that look at the performance and standards of potentially all forms of media. Journalism ethics is now defined as the norms for responsible use of media by any and all practitioners. This means, as I have argued elsewhere, constructing a multi-media code of ethics that ranges across media platforms and types of practice. The idea of media accountability now extends beyond the walls of professional newsrooms. The ultimate mandate of the council might be defined as answering this question: What does responsible journalism practice (by anyone) mean in today’s online, global media world?

Diversity of funding: If any national council wishes to enjoy public credibility, it cannot be funded only (or primarily) by the media industry or parts thereof. It cannot be controlled and funded solely by members who themselves may be the subject of complaints. The public’s confidence in the independence of the adjudicator will be proportional to the diversity of funders for the council, from NGOs and foundations to schools of journalism, philanthropists, and corporations. Yes, I said “corporations.” The philosophy behind the diversity model for funding in today’s new media market — witness the funding strategies of non-profit journalism in the USA — is to dilute the influence of any one contributor with the contributions of many others.

Independence and diversity of executive members: The structure and bylaws of the council must protect the independence of the council and its decisions. Also, the members of council should be a representative sampling of Canadian society, not just industry members.

Public involvement: A key to a successful council will be its ability to use social media and other media technology to allow the public to engage meaningfully in the topic or issue under discussion, and not simply be informed of the council’s decision after the members have deliberated behind closed doors. Almost all of the deliberations — and votes –should not only be public, but live-streamed for anyone to watch.

At this point, the reader may feel that I am asking for changes that go far beyond Newspapers Canada’s proposal. Further, many professional journalists and industry executives would reject my suggestions. This is true.

So what am I really trying to do in this article?

I am trying to prompt all journalists and all Canadians to think more creatively about media ethics; to imagine new ways to construct an effective and credible set of accountability agencies for media, including but going beyond press councils. How do we construct agencies that prompt responsible journalism and fit our media world today? That is the complex question that lies beneath the interesting proposal. At the least, we should avoid taking on, without modification, the structure of councils developed for another media era.

Let’s do something different and more ambitious.

Overall, we need radical thinking and change in media ethics to get the democratic media system we need. To get this change we cannot assume that someone else will bring it about.

Significant, deep change will require the work of a broad coalition of citizens and groups that care about responsible journalism. That coalition should include industry executives and professionals, but it will be broader and more public-directed than specific industry groups.

So, let us welcome this initiative and suggest improvements, while we get to work on other changes, and other reform.

This column was originally published on Media Morals.

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