Wednesday, July 12, 2006


CLIPPING: News council seeks to resolve media disputes


POSTED: Friday, June 30, 2006

News council seeks to resolve media disputes

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, Mass.

AMHERST - A new group at the University of Massachusetts wants to bring a cool breeze into the media hothouse.

Fueled by a grant from the Knight Foundation, the nonprofit New England News Council will position itself between companies that report the news and people who feel they have been treated unfairly by that coverage.

The $75,000 grant is one of two awarded nationally today. The UMass-based council, and another in California, join a handful of news councils around the country that claim to bring an independent quest for accuracy and fairness to a crowded media marketplace.

The council, operating from within the journalism program at UMass, will field complaints about news coverage from all six New England states.

Its director, Bill Densmore, acknowledges the council must convince New England journalists it can play a useful role, at a time when bloggers and new media outlets offer limitless opportunities for expression.

''We know this is a challenge, to win support from editors,'' Densmore said today. ''They might feel it would be nice to have a partner in helping to resolve these things.''

The project is still taking shape, Densmore said. Norm Sims, a long-time professor at UMass, will be a lead investigator of complaints that the council takes on.

The venture will seek participation as well from journalists and consumers of news. To qualify for a hearing by the council, a person making a complaint must waive the right to bring a lawsuit.

Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said a news council seeks to reveal the actual facts underlying media complaints.

That purpose, he said in a statement, ''is better than a blogger working from opinion alone, and vastly superior to the talking heads on cable TV with their pre-fixed political menus.''

Tim Blagg, editor of The Recorder newspaper in Greenfield, said today he believes publications like his own are not viewed as part of ''one amorphous mass called the 'news media.' ... I insist that independent, local newspapers like The Recorder and the Gazette are viewed by their readers with affection
and respect, and that when they err, which of course they do, they are quickly called to account by their readers.''

''They participate, sometimes vociferously, in the day-to-day operation, story selection and correction process,'' Blagg said in an email message. ''They don't need a 'council' to make their views known.''

The Recorder is owned by Newspapers of New England, the privately held company that bought the Daily Hampshire Gazette early this year.

Densmore said he plans to work at first to explain the venture to media companies around the region. Participation by media companies is voluntary. He stressed today that the council he envisions will seek to do more than hold editors' feet to the fire.

''This has moved rather quickly. We want to consult a lot with New England media about how to implement this,'' Densmore said.

Rather than focus on fault of blame in how a story was reported, Densmore said the council will work to improve the overall relationship between news outlets and news consumers. Densmore said the council will seek both to resolve conflicts and to engage in public education, through forums and Web site materials. The grant will support a year of work, he said, and the council will need to win new financial backing as it takes shape.

Blagg, the Greenfield editor, agrees that people are increasingly suspicious about the worth of the information they receive. ''It is true that public opinion of the 'news media' and its credibility is slipping, and it should be,'' he said. ''Blogs are mostly baloney, most TV and radio news are rip-and-read operations and network news operations have long blurred the line between entertainment and news.''


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