UNDERSTANDING MEDIA WATCHDOGS
by Virginia Whitehouse, Ph.D.
, Communication Studies, Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington
8:00 a.m. January 15, 2001 PDT
Watchdog groups that oversee the ethical decisions and practices of journalists and media organizations are often driven by values and agendas of their own that must be evaluated in order to understand their criticisms.
The role of journalism in American democracy has evolved to include its function as a watchdog of the government, meaning that journalists are expected to investigate when elected officials abuse the rights and freedoms of average people.
"To journalists, it is self-evident that investigative reporting informs the public, exposes corruption, and rights wrongs," Jane E. Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said in an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review
However, American journalists routinely come under fire for doing their jobs in a way that causes more harm than benefit. If journalists are to be watchdogs, who then watches the watchdog? There are many volunteers for the job of media watchdog; however, the motivations and biases of these watchdogs must be evaluated in order to understand and analyze their criticism.
Freedom of the press in the United States belongs to the person who owns the press (or television station or magazine or newsletter). Some national media, including mainstream newspapers, cable networks, and news broadcasts, tend to make objectivity or fairness the ultimate news value because that's what their audiences expect. Magazines, newsletters, and other media may have different news valuesadvocacy of an idea, such as human rights or family values, or the promotion of an industry, such as fashion or automobiles. The media owner decides what the news values will be.
Those criticizing the media have values and agendas as well. Knowing the critic's values helps the reader understand the perspectives, interpretations, and even "spin" (meaning interpretation) that the critic takes in analyzing the media. Some of the toughest critics may be those inside the profession, who may be most aware of the ethical decisions and practices of their colleagues, but even they base their criticism on values reflected in the news industry.
Watchdog Groups Outside the Industry
The headlines in articles and mission statements can provide some clues as to the political agenda of a media watchdog group, even if the name of the group appears to be that of a neutral observer. For example, the name of Media Research Center
(MRC) sounds neutral, but MRC clearly explains in its statement of purpose that it is not neutral. The MRC news division reports that, since 1987, it has "worked to bring political balance to the nation's news media by documenting and countering liberal bias from television network news shows and major print publications." The New York-based MRC says it is "the nation's largest and most respected conservative media watchdog organization." MRC commentators appear routinely on network and cable news programs to criticize the media, and their positions favor conservative agendas. Recent headlines include: "20 Years of Liberal Spin From Gunga Dan" and "Talking Heads Talk Trash About Tax Cuts." (See Media Reality Check
Other watchdog groups focus criticism on the expanding wealth and influence of corporate conglomerates. Again, their names sound neutral, but their agendas are clearly stated. The Media Channel
reports in its mission statement, "More than ever before, we are living in a media age and a media world. Nine transnational conglomerates dominate the global media; multibillion-dollar deals are concentrating this power even further. Yet we are also experiencing a technological revolution...The vitality of our political and cultural discourse relies on a free and diverse media that offers access to everybody."
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
(FAIR) seeks out evidence of censorship by corporate owners, overall corporate bias, and a lack of diversity in news coverage. A March 8, 2001, FAIR article
argued that ABC's "World News Tonight" only provided the perspectives and interpretations of the pharmaceutical companies and their supporters in a story on patents for AIDS drugs in Africa.
Information provided by these types of watchdog groups and the analysis offered may be helpful in interpreting media coverage, but readers must be aware of underlying assumptions and biases in story selection and criticism.Criticism from Inside the Media Industry
Journalism reviews act as media watchdogs inside the industry. These reviews are primarily written by media professionals for media professionals, are housed at universities, and do not claim to hold a particular perspective on the news or a specific agenda for its transformation. Executive Editor Mike Hoyt believes his publication, the Columbia Journalism Review
(CJR), helps journalists do a difficult job better.
"In this country the press is the oxygen of democracy," Hoyt said in an interview. "To the extent that the press is vigilant, that's how well society works. We see our job as encouraging and inspiring the press to do its important work well."
In the past year, CJR has investigated and reported on the volume of national news produced in New York City, thus giving the nation a very New York perspective; the use of lobbyists by media corporate heads to wield influence in Washington, D.C.; and how attorneys are influencing editorial decisions.
CJR was the only national media criticism journal of its kind when it was founded in 1961 by Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Now, other national reviews are available, including the American Journalism Review
, published by the University of Maryland Foundation, as well as local publications, such as the St. Louis Journalism Review
, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary at Webster University.
These commentators provide an inside perspective and interpretation that reflects the values of the mainstream industryFirst Amendment protection, truth and accuracy, and balanced reporting. Media professionals in the United States are more likely to take criticism from a journalism review to heart than from media watchdogs with political agendas, Hoyt said, because the review offers an "outsider's" perspective from industry insiders.
"It's pretty easy to blast people. We want to be tough, but we want to understand the position of the journalist," Hoyt said. "There is a lot of criticism out there. There is a tendency to close your ears to it unless it's well done and comes at you from one of your own."
Criticism from News Councils
Numerous journalists and journalism organizations have attempted or at least actively considered setting up news councils to arbitrate disputes between journalists and the people they cover. The National News Council, modeled after its English cousin the British News Council, lasted just a little more than a decade, closing down in 1984. The Minnesota News Council
, however, has successfully maintained such a forum since 1971. In handling disputes, council members attempt first to bring news managers and those who believe they have been harmed by news stories together for discussion. Often this resolves the conflict. Fewer than 8 percent of those filing complaints ultimately request a hearing before the 12-member council, comprising six journalists and six citizens at large.
The Minnesota News Council has made more than 100 rulings in its history, but that simply means the council publicly stated whether the journalist or the news organization had acted ethically in the case in question. The News Council has no other power.
"We have noticed that when members of the public go through our process, their respect for the news media is greater at the end than it was in the beginning," Bob Shaw, a founding member, writes in the Minnesota council's Web site. "They see that our council, composed equally of media and public members, is no slick public-relations ploy, but an exercise in fundamental fairness."
But news councils also stir their share of controversy. Some believe forming such councils threatens First Amendment freedoms by centralizing journalistic standards, while others want to avoid interpreting a colleague's motives. Minneapolis' KSTP-TV and its parent company, Hubbard Broadcasting, have never participated in the council.
"If somebody feels we've done something wrong, they can talk to us directly, or they have recourse in the courts," Stanley Hubbard, chief executive officer, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune
in 1996. "I don't want to be in a situation where a panel of people are sitting in judgment on our judgment."
Other councils have faced similar criticism. The two-year-old Seattle-based Washington News Council has been charged with being nothing more than self-appointed busybodies who are really just on the side of media-bashing. That council also came under fire for receiving its primary funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the charity operated by the founder of Microsoft and his wife, thus creating a potential conflict of interest and ethical dilemma within a group designed to address media ethics.
Despite these concerns, news councils offer a much-needed opportunity for the public to interact with and offer criticism of the media, Geneva Overholser, former Washington Post
ombudsman now on faculty at the University of Missouri, said in a Columbia Journalism Review
article last February. "We can ill afford to pass up any decent opportunity to hold ourselves accountable, and to help the public understand all that we do to uphold our principles and to get our facts straight," Overholser said.
Criticism from Professional Organizations
Professional organizations assist journalists in improving skills and in making legal challenges when their First Amendment rights are in question. The Radio and Television News Directors Association publicly applauded the U.S. Court of Appeals decision to allow live audio of oral arguments in the case of United States versus Microsoft
. Officers of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) regularly speak out against government intervention into the daily work of journalists. The value that these organizations place on journalistic freedom is evident in the criticism, praise, and even financial support they supply.
These same organizations also may create codes of ethics that help guide journalists' professional practice. When journalists break the codes, the organizations may occasionally state opposition to the violation. The SPJ Ethics Committee accused Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and the Associated Press of breaking the SPJ Code by not "acting independently." All these major news agencies had contracted with Voter News Service for November 2000 presidential election returns, then relied on the service's inaccurate report that then-Vice President Al Gore had won Florida's electoral votes. This criticism is based on the assumption that news organizations should autonomously seek out and verify information rather than rely on contracted services. The value of acting independently provides a foundation for challenging the news judgments of journalists.
Direct investigations and condemnations of inadequate reporting by industry insider organizations are rare, however. "If this (poor professional practice) were happening in any other profession or power center in American life, the media would be all over the story, holding the offending institution up to a probing light," Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Sydney H. Schanberg wrote in a Washington Post
editorial. "When law firms breach ethical canons, Wall Street brokerages cheat clients, or managed-care companies deny crucial care to patients, we journalists consider it news and frequently put it on the front page. But when our own profession is the offender, we go soft.
"No newspaper is eager to acknowledge its own deficienciesor expose those of its peers (who might return the favor). Everyone has dirty linen," Schanberg added.
Meanwhile, the American public believes the media are not sufficiently self-critical and do not consistently demonstrate respect for the communities they claim to serve, according to studies
by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
In response to this research, the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) has taken a different approach in encouraging criticism by bringing readers and those directly impacted by the news into roundtable discussions with local newspaper editors and publishers. With support from the Ford Foundation, the APME-sponsored sessions examine journalistic credibility in newsrooms in all 50 states, said Birmingham News
Managing Editor and Project Coordinator Carol Nunnelley. These forums allow external criticism to be brought inside newsrooms.The Spokesman Review
in Spokane, Washington, held its roundtable in January 2001, the first in the series. City council members, real estate developers, academics, and community activists held a two-hour discussion with newspaper editors and reporters. They considered the potential conflicts of interest for the newspaper's publisher, whose family developed a downtown mall and parking garage that became embroiled in controversy.
"This (dialogue) let the people who are stakeholders get together with the real journalists, and no filter in between there," said Chris Peck, APME president and Spokesman Review
editor. "It required both sides to be more honest. It didn't allow people to rant and rave. If you were very distrustful of media or arrogant for the media, then someone would call you on it."
Retired Washington Post
correspondent Murrey Marder declared at the 1998 Nieman Watchdog Journalism Conference, "Fear of the abuse of power was the galvanizing force in the American Revolution and continues to be the strongest justification for a challenging and thoroughly independent press." Yet in the same speech, Marder said Americans don't trust their media because the media are far too secretive about the way journalism works. There is a tension amongst these variables: encouraging a watchdog press, encouraging criticism of that press while not stifling it, and maintaining freedoms for the press and its critics.
Some believe that that the watchdog role is best performed by outside groups, even if those groups have their own agendas. Others believe that those inside the media industry are best equipped to levy criticism, particularly because they are the most likely to be respected by journalists. In one way or another, however, all these watchdogs contribute to the on-going conversation of what it means to have a free press in a free society.<<
Virginia Whitehouse is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington.
Article copyright © Virginia Whitehouse; all rights reserved
Source: Global IssuesMedia & Ethics, US Dept. of State, International Information Programs
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Accuracy in MediaCenter for Media and Public AffairsCenter for Public IntegrityCommittee to Protect JournalistsFairness & Accuracy In ReportingFirst Amendment Cyber-TribuneFreedom Forum First Amendment CenterFreedom HouseIFEX Alert ServiceIndex on CensorshipInstitute for Public AccuracyMedia Awareness NetworkMedia Research CenterOn The MediaPEN American Center
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media criticism/resources:American Journalism ReviewColumbia Journalism ReviewInternational Forum for Independent MediaJournalismNetMedia & Peace InstituteMedia CentralMedia ChannelNewsLink (AJR affiliate)Project Censored
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