A media accountability system (MAS) is any nongovernmental way that encourages media organizations and journalists to respect the ethical rules set by the profession. As defined by the Reynolds Journalism Institute's MAS page, all MAS aim at improving news media, but they are extremely diverse: codes of conduct; ombudsmen and media-oriented nongovernmental organizations.
A press council (or news council), wrote RJI, is the best-known MAS. All press councils differ from one another. In its ideal shape, a press council gathers and represents all three major actors of social communication: the people who own the power to inform, those who possess the talent to inform and those who have the right to be informed.
It usually follows a Code of Practice to investigate complaints from the public about editorial content in the media. Media members and lay members usually form it.
It is a self-regulatory body and it has no other power than accountability and public trust as its effectiveness depends on its credibility and on the cooperation between actors involved. It's all about fair and trusted journalism.
Writing back to an article by the American Journalism Review, John Hamer, the president of the Washington News Council, took stock of WNC's situation and that of the other news councils in the US.
The AJR story was about the closure, after 41 years of existence, of the Minnesota News Council, "the granddaddy of news councils in the United States", as John Hamer described it, quoted by AJR. MNC was the model for the Washington News Council, which has essentially adopted its guidelines and procedures.
Hamer wrote an article to clarify some points he thought didn't emerged clearly from the AJR article.
WNS is the only surviving news council in the country that still receives complaints against the media but - he underlined - is as vigorous as ever. (Though actually it seems one other exists, the Honolulu Community Media Council, established in 1970).
Amongst other reasons, the economic recession of 2008 and 2009 had an important impact on Minnesota News Council's decision to close its doors, as it has had the difficulty of keeping up with time changes and the growth and proliferation of the Internet that allows a directly complaint-line through comments and which makes MNC's work more difficult, it said.
On the contrary, Hamer wrote that WNC has just matched a $100,000 challenge grant from the Gates Foundation and it receive a $10,00 grant from Microsoft.
n order to move with the times, the news council has redesigned the website, created an active blog and an online community and other tools as a NewsTrust.net widget, that helps people find and share good journalism articles online.
Moreover, Hamer noted, its latest projects have met with success, such as the "TAO of Journalism - Transparent, Accountable, Open" project, a pledge that can be displayed on a website, a blog, or even a printed page, which shows to the public how transparent about who they are, accountable for their mistakes and open to other points of view, they are. The OMG - Online Media Guide for the Washington State is also generating great interest, Hamer wrote.
With reference to the the "technology issue", Hamer responded to Tony Carideo, the last chairman of the MNC, and Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation, quoted by AJR, who said that "with the Internet, online feedback to news outlets is much quicker and easier, so there is less need for a complaint-and-hearing process."
Newton - Hamer wrote - is spot on when he states: "We still need to keep thinking of good ways to keep quality news and information about journalism on the table when complaints are discussed, but it looks like we need digital, real time ways to do it", concluding by saying "that is precisely what the Washington News Council is doing, reinventing ourselves in the digital media age".
When the Minnesota News Council started in the late 1960s, it has in mind the example of the British Press Council, created in 1953 and re-named, after an important revision in the 1990s, Press Complaints Commission.
As the Washington News Council says, it has been called an "outside ombudsman". The mission is actually the same: protecting and enhancing a quality, fair, transparent, trusted and truthful journalism, acting as a mediator between the news organizations and the public.
It's a tough job, all focused on accountability, with no any formal power.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, says it is a robust and subtle role. "Robust because the claims and counter-claims of the public can be as intense as any dialogue in the public sphere... Subtle because an ombudsman needs to parse and dissect the elements and nuances in any argument no matter how intense they may be."
But the real comfort - he says - is in knowing that the public still cares enough about good journalism to want to write to the ombudsman.