With the world wrestling with the disruptive impact of digital communication on democracy, and the news media struggling for its very survival as it faces unprecedented challenges and public attack, we desperately need new institutions and mechanisms to put the public foremost in considering the functions of media.
Important questions regarding journalism’s contributions, its missteps, and intentions, should not be left to be litigated via social media and media outlet crossfire, or on Sunday television programs.
We propose a new type of arbiter. A trustee that serves the public's trust, operating independently, and free of any particular news company influence or affiliation.
Such a fiduciary can improve journalism and trust by filling a significant gap in our civic conversation: who holds accountable the people who hold others accountable?
While media organization ombudsman and public editor programs still hold certain institutions up to regular public scrutiny, their numbers are dwindling in the face of falling budgets and collapsing business models. Similarly, the world's press councils are threatened , as legacy newspapers, TV, and radio station members disappear, and the remaining consolidated corporate media owners are reticent, refusing to participate in a process that promises meaningful public accountability.
Backed by trusted institutions such as a journalism schools, think tanks or broad-reach public interest organizations (such as the Fourth Estate), a new journalism advocacy model could emerge, with the journalism advocate acting as the public’s agent in holding journalism accountable and journalism’s agent in articulating freedom of information and expression principles, news values and understanding of best practices.
- Journalism Advocates would invite public questions and challenges, selecting a small number to analyze or amplify, in detail and context.
- Journalism Advocates would engage through contemporary platforms and practices, including public media programming, podcasts, webinars and conference calls, guest spots on media programs, and public social media, not just the long form printed article or whitepaper.
- Journalism Advocates would address not just the hottest controversies, but more importantly the systemic issues of representation, ethics, funding models and their impact, viewpoint, bias, and others.
- Taken further, larger ad-hoc councils of Journalism Advocates - anchored by a convening host facilitator - could be empaneled with members of the public to consider issues and address specific complaints of greater public interest.
Making a Committment
The Fourth Estate is committed to the Journalism Advocate iniative and intends to lead the way, announcing the appointment of Alan Sunderland to the newly created Office of the Journalism Advocate. We challenge other organizations to make similar appointments within their own organizations.
Melanie Sill is a news editor and strategist, she is a leader and change-maker with prior senior executive roles at The News & Observer of Raleigh, Sacramento Bee and Southern California Public Radio/KPCC
This article may be republished without modification from Fourth Estate under a Creative Commons license.
Note: This article was edited to include the appointment of Alan Sunderland to the Office of the Journalism Advocate.