Revive The News Council? p. 8

By: M.L. STEIN REVIVING THE National News Council may be the way to blunt the criticisms and legal assaults heaped on the media, Society of Professional Journalists' President Steve Geimann suggested in a San Francisco speech.
SPJ might even be the group to start a news council, he said later.
Although acknowledging that many journalists are opposed to the idea of a news council, Geimann, in his address, said a council, or something like it, should be considered, warning: "I fear that if journalism doesn't address these issues now, someone else will and the outcome will create much more trouble for journalists."
Geimann noted that a recent report by the Libel Defense Resources Center said that average libel awards almost doubled last year over the previous two years, and that the media lost l0 out of 14 libel cases in 1996.
Another ominous sign for the media was the jury decision in the ABC-Food Lion case in which the network was punished for its undercover means of getting a story on food contamination, Geimann said.
"No longer is it enough to produce an accurate story based on factors and responsible reporting," he commented. "Today, we've got to watch how we get the story."
In an interview following his remarks before the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at the Freedom Forum's Pacific Coast Center, the former UPI editor and Gannett reporter said: "I'm not ready to recommend a news council but that's the direction the media has to go, given the great amount of criticism they are getting, including complaints about the bias of reporters. We have to be concerned about our reputation and, as journalists, we must talk about what to do about this situation."
Geimann, currently senior editor of a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter covering electronic communications, added that SPJ should play a role in any news council start-up.
"Maybe we'll have to start it ourselves," he said, although conceding that such a move would be difficult and controversial.
The National News Council, which was established in 1973 with a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund, folded 10 years later, largely because of lack of support from major news organizations, including the New York Times, Washington Post and CBS. However, regional news councils operate today in Oregon, Minnesota and Hawaii.
Geimann observed that a news council ? a forum where public gripes against news outlets are heard and evaluated ? still has its detractors in the media. To be successful, he opined, a national body would need a "ninety-five percent sign-up."
"This would blow off the other five percent," he said.
The Food Lion episode and other charges concerning media ethics can be seen as "signals to our profession," Geimann said. "If so," he concluded, "there must be some response from responsible professional journalists. We must stand up and demand of our colleagues a standard that is tough, that is beyond questioning by the public, that's worthy of being a professional journalist."
In his speech, Geimann did not see a lengthy future for newspapers, with or without public criticism. The rapid growth of the Internet, he reasoned, foretells that, "Newspapers will remain a part of the news mix for another one or two generations,but then, I think, all bets are off."
Yet, he said, "It will be many years before the Internet is the only way of distributing news. At least two more generations of computer literacy are needed . . . before the critical mass of the public shifts from paper to electronics."
Meanwhile, Geimann said, he is troubled by the fact that some younger journalists are depending too much on the World Wide Web as a reporting tool.
"I think this is wrong-headed and bad policy that exposes us to greater risks of getting unreliable information," he explained. "There is nothing that should replace good, old-fashioned human contact, in person or by phone ? talking to your sources and contacts."
Geimann asserted that SPJ's approval last year of its revised Code of Ethics augurs well for journalism, even though some members didn't agree with the changes.
These colleagues, he said, have taken a "different, and . . . troubling path that too often ends with lower standards, higher ratings or circulation and increasing demands for greater financial success. What we get are flashy graphics and minimum substance, celebrity interviews and limited investigative reporting. And the public loses."
?(E&P Web Site:
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 29, 1997)


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