3.) Self-regulation works, as long as everyone’s on board. Scandinavia’s press councils are independent organizations, staffed and (for the most part) funded by the journalism industry, that were established to give readers a place to bring grievances against news outlets. Each one is like a combination ombudsman and courtroom: the reader with the complaint and the news organization in question have their say, and then a group of journalists, editors, and members of the public decide whether to uphold or deny the complaint. If they decide that the news organization has broken the journalistic code of ethics, the organization must pay penance by printing or broadcasting a notice saying so.
Involvement in the press council system is voluntary, but pretty much every news organization in each country belongs; audiences recognize the outlets’ signing up for such scrutiny as a kind of stamp of accountability. “This is like the what do you call it in America?” asks Kjell Nyhuus, one of the secretaries at Norway’s press council. “The fox that watches the henhouse. But it is a very good fox! A very serious fox.”
As I’ve previously noted, there have been a few attempts at similar self-regulation systems in the US, each on a much smaller scale. In order to follow this Scandinavian press council model, news organizations here would have to all agree on a code of ethics, all agree to submit themselves to external evaluation and potential punishment, and all contribute money directly to the council for its operational costs. That kind of organized institutionalism seems unlikely to be successful here, in such a fractured landscape. But more frequent (and more publicized) industry-wide conversations about standards, ideals, and ethics couldn’t hurt, either.
4.) Public broadcasting can (and should) prove to their audiences that they are non-biased. Because Scandinavian audiences directly fund their public TV and radio through a mandatory annual fee, they tend to feel a strong sense of ownership over what they watch and listen to. Research departments within the broadcast companies constantly conduct audience feedback surveys, as well as quantitative analyses—about how much total time is given to representatives of various political parties, for instance. Publicizing external evaluations are important, too. In Denmark, The Radio and Television Board funds research projects at the University of Southern Denmark’s Centre for Journalism that measure political balance and impartiality in public media broadcasts during elections. In Sweden, a widely publicized annual survey, “The Media Barometer” measures audience activity and trust of different media companies.
Studies throughout the region consistently show that public broadcasters are the fairest and most trusted sources of news in their respective countries—not to mention among the most trusted institutions, period. Or, as Johan Ljungström, a project manager at public broadcaster Swedish Radio, puts it, “We are consistently voted the number two most trusted company in Sweden, after IKEA.”
Last year, following the sting of NPR by activist James O’Keefe, and the resignation of NPR’s CEO, Republican members of Congress took the occasion to cry “bias” and try to cut off federal funding. While defunding is unlikely in the near future, NPR and PBS are continually put on the defensive. This politicized sniping would have been tamped down much more quickly if there were a well-established, and well-publicized, methodology for determining whether these organizations’ coverage is biased.
In the midst of the hubbub last March, On The Media produced an excellent series exploring the question of bias in public radio. The series included both soul-searching by producers who worked within the organization, and explanation of quantitative research by outside academics and analysts. There are people in the U.S. studying and measuring these things, and On The Media found them. Public media audiences, public media haters, and all those who are in the position of making funding decisions should be invited to participate in these types of surveys, and should be made aware of the results. If public money goes to these institutions—and recent evidence reinforces that it must—then the public deserves to trust their neutrality and feel ownership over their coverage.