Monday, March 3, 1997

Opinion: Caution necessary in news council

Published in the Mountainview

An idea of which all journalists should be aware is a new proposal for "news councils," or bodies which monitor news organizations and the media for ethics and integrity. They are watchdog groups, made up of members of the journalistic professions, which can investigate and censure reporters or media which violate ethical guidelines.

Media censorship or regulation is a concept which should be investigated carefully. It rarely does harm to investigate a solution to a problem, but implementation of solutions should be done with great caution. This is particularly the case when dealing with institutions so close to the core of the American culture as its news gathering and dissemination organizations.

Editorial content of one publication is already subject to public scrutiny and to the challenges of other publications. Most publications have a "Corrections" section where they admit their own errors and provide correct information. This is a form of self-censorship which is productive and appropriate; any newspaper which has a large amount of space devoted to corrections is likely doing a poor job of fact-checking. Further, should one publication fail to correct its own error, other publications are free to (and ethically bound to) report the correct facts.

Outside monitoring (even by a formal intra-industry regulating body) are threats to a free press. Press monitoring goes on all day, all over the world. Individuals receive information from media outlets and evaluate the credibility and usefulness of the information. Into that equation they add their own self-interest, the reportage of the same situation by other information sources, and their genera/ experience with a news reporting agency.

To formalize this implicit interrelationship between media outlets is to formalize a threat to an essential freedom in the American democracy. Left unformalized, regulation is on a low level, bound by ethical considerations but free from the intimidation which a watchdog necessarily imposes. Formalized, the regulation suddenly carries the weight of the world.

When developing a system of regulation, the question must always be posed: "Who watches the watchmen?" As the information dissemination system is currently in use, the answer is "They watch each other, and are equally capable of reporting on violations of public trust." A news council would be accountable to the public. That appears to be a good thing, until we remember that the only effective watchdogs the public has on its side are the media. Each individual cannot go out and research the world and current events; that is specifically why we watch television and read newspapers. With news councils in the system, the answer would be "The regulators watch the reporters, who in turn watch the regulators. However, the regulators, when they speak, speak with a more powerful and legitimated voice than the reporters." This imbalance of power and of access to the public mind is dangerous to freedom of information.

Freedom of information is so important to the American public that we often fail to acknowledge its existence. We often exhibit cynicism and doubt towards the media. Those are both good things. If we inherently understand that freedoms are important, we are unlikely to abridge them. If we question the sources of our information, we will always feel in control of our own minds and opinions. However, if we take for granted that freedoms will always exist, and begin to mistrust the media and suspect it of threatening the public interest, we risk limiting the very instruments we rely on for our own., participation in the wider world.

Imposing regulations on a necessarily free industry is a mistake which must not be made now or in the future. Having bodies which meet to design ethical guidelines is an excellent idea; all newspapers currently have them, in the form of editorial boards. Professional journalists' associations have codes of ethics to which all members must subscribe. The ethics are already in place, and despite disparate sources are very similar codes throughout the world's journalistic organizations. Regulating an industry which is self-regulating and necessarily free is to deny freedom of information and of the press.