Press councils’ choice: make big changes, or fade to black

Brian GabrialPress councils across Canada are declining because they lack relevance,
credibility and money, writes
Yet the need for a watchdog over journalism’s ethics has
never been greater, and it’s time to choose between accepting a slow
death and taking some bold—and controversial—moves.

On the J-Source website two years ago, former Toronto Star ombudsman Don Sellar wrote, “Underpublicized, passive and largely ignored, press councils in Canada are falling off the public radar, and deservedly so.” Falling off the public radar?  Have they ever been on the screen?  In their 20-to-30 plus-year histories, Canada’s press councils (Québec, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia) have hardly, if ever, fulfilled their promise of becoming guardians over Canadian news media ethics.

Now, the Québec press council has briefly made headlines with the announcement that media giant Quebecor was withdrawing from the voluntary organization – a move that threatens the council’s very future, says council president and former Quebec Superior Court justice John Gomery. He told a news conference that Quebecor’s decision is “a blow to the freedom of expression…and a loss of moral authority for the council.”

The few suggestions offered in this essay are meant to rankle the ranks of press council advocates (like me) and to spur a discussion about how press councils can regroup and refocus their resources to reclaim their brand.  Press councils are fiercely needed in today’s world of mass-less media and web journalism where thoughtful journalism is practised—or not.

First, Canada’s press councils must address three major gaps.
A relevancy gap exists because the councils are stuck in the big media days of 70s, 80s, and 90s, refusing to consider complaints made against all journalistic platforms.  By focusing on just their media members, they ignore complaints about bloggers, citizen journalists, and other on-line journalists.  It’s 2010!  Press councils must function in a 21st century journalism world.

Closely linked to a relevancy gap is the credibility gap, created by the press councils’ inability to let the public know that they matter. Without visibility, there is no credibility. Further, the provincial press councils rarely collaborate with one another, missing opportunities to promote their work among their peers.   Instead, they are insular, arcane organizations whose determinations exist in a vacuum, which is unfortunate because violations of journalism ethics do not occur in a vacuum.  (Maybe, it’s time to reconsider the creation of a national press council as was first suggested in the early 1970s?)  Thus, the press councils’ long-standing failure to attract public attention has diminished their credibility as actors in the public realm, hampering their efforts to become valuable professional and public resources.

Press councils face a financial gap created by old media abandoning their memberships to cut costs.  In an age of declining revenues for traditional news media, things do not bode well as some news organizations have come to view their press council memberships as luxury budget items.

In a speech two years ago to Québec’s press council, Alberta Press Council Chair, Ed Kamps, suggested that councils needed to become more proactive and more focused, to develop measures of success and increase research and analysis of their own work, to create collaborative opportunities among the journalistic players, and increase funding.  In his J-Source essay, Don Sellar had three primary suggestions: councils should streamline the complaint process, issue decisions faster, and provide a space for reader comments about the findings. 

Borrowing from Kamps and Sellar, three essential ideas emerge:

1. Broaden the Mandate.  Press councils are not courts of law, operating within a specific jurisdiction.  Why can’t they be proactive and spot breaches in journalism ethics occurring in any news media?  Why can’t they hear complaints involving more than just their membership?  Even Québec, which appears to have the most vigorous press council (and hears complaints about broadcast journalism), will not enlarge its ethical “jurisdiction” to include complaints about non-member journalists.   Today’s journalism is more than the daily newspaper or newscast, so it’s time for press councils to watch all the watchdogs.

2. Increase outreach. This is maybe the most needed change.  The councils need a strong and vibrant web presence that is dynamic, user friendly, and easy to navigate. Press councils must use the blogosphere!  Their websites must engage and interact with the public and journalists via the Internet.  Press councils must become the “go to” on-line resource when it comes to journalism ethics.

Of course press councils should reach out to schools and universities, but they should also take a daring step and “go wiki.”  Press councils can harness the public’s energy and collaborative power of wikis to draw attention to and fix problems involving journalism ethics.   Because Internet users are not shy about identifying reporter mistakes, the councils should take advantage of this—plus, it’s cheap to do so. The wiki approach also provides a mechanism for self-regulation – something that Marie-Eve Carignan, director for the Québec press council’s communications and analysis, has said is key for journalism.

In this way and others, press councils should become clearinghouses for good journalism practice, identifying all journalism platforms doing good journalism.  In this sense, they should not shy away from creating a “kudos” list that acknowledges practitioners of solid journalism and journalism ethics.   Furthermore, press councils can identify stories that present ethical problems without having formal complaints lodged against them. 

3.Increase financial resources. Implementing potentially costly website improvements and more outreach requires more human resources and more money.  Canada’s other press councils should look to Quebec, which receives public money, and ask for the same from their governments.  It is the view here that serving the public – and press councils serve the public – warrants public money.  In these days of so-called “wild west journalism,” no better time exists to ask for public money.

Press councils should open their memberships to individual journalists, freelancers and the like, and provide an “accreditation” function.  One requirement, besides a fee based on a sliding scale, could insist that the applicant-journalist provide assurances of understanding of good journalism practice.  Members, too, could cite their press council memberships as a sort of “Best Practices” seal of approval. Further, all members understand they can lose their memberships if they consistently violate journalism ethics.

To most journalists, asking for government support or providing an “accreditation” function are not popular choices as ways to keep press councils afloat.  Regardless, press councils need money if they are to survive, if they are to regain their status in this new media world.  The suggestion box is open.

In 2009, Manitoba press council chair John Cochrane noted, “Our future will depend on the continued, and hopefully improved understanding of the reason why press councils exists.” (No better time like the present, I say.)  It’s time for the press councils to take action to become relevant again.  They are important bodies for journalism and for the public, and they must quit neglecting their brand. As Kamps told Quebec’s press council:

“Press councils will continue to operate in some form or fashion in the near term at least, but the question is, what will they be doing?  What will they be known for?  And longer term, will they fade away out of neglect, or will they continue to exist, primarily for their insurance value, warding off government regulations, or activist human rights councils?  Or might they evolve into something new in terms of their purpose, their structure and their processes?”

Let’s hope that they do so before they become remnants of an old news media world that no longer exists.

Brian Gabrial is an associate professor and director of the M.A. journalism program at Concordia University. This essay was written with the help of research assistants Ryan Mullins and Pam Toman. A longer version, entitled, “Existential Crisis!  Canada’s Press Councils Struggle for Relevance in a New Media Age,” was presented at the 2010 conference of the Canadian Communication Association in Montreal on June 3rd.