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U.S.: Experts Say Free Press Functions Through Self-Regulation

Washington, 27 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An expert on the U.S. media says the American press is self-regulating and not restricted by national laws or controlled by the government.

Joan Mower, an international program manager for the Freedom Forum -- a U.S.-based private foundation dedicated to promoting a free press worldwide -- told RFE/RL that the American media operates primarily under the dictates of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

According to the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech; or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

As a result, Mower says, U.S. journalists are not bound by press laws, government controls or licensing requirements. But they do police themselves through intense peer pressure and strong self-criticism, she adds.

Mower says there is no one national or federal organization that oversees journalists in the same way the American Medical Association controls doctors, or the American Bar Association directs lawyers in the U.S.

Explains Mower: "American journalists have been very wary and are very opposed to a licensing system. Under our Constitution, free press means anybody can speak, anybody can write. So journalist organizations are extremely wary and fight at every turn.... any effort to set up licensing codes."

She says this aspect of free press in the U.S. surprises many journalists from other countries: "People are shocked when I tell them that anyone can be a journalist in America. Journalists are not required to graduate from a specific university or obtain a particular degree. We don't have to pass a bar exam like a lawyer. Anyone with an opinion, and anyone willing to express it, can call themselves a journalist. This is what we mean by free press. And this is a system we fight very strongly and fiercely to protect."

Mower says there are numerous groups and organizations in America founded for and by journalists -- each of them with strict ethical codes and a list of professional standards. Additionally, she says, almost every media outlet in the U.S. has its own individual journalistic code.

For example, Mower says that if she were hired by the " Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, she would likely be required to sign a document which states that she would adhere to the newspaper's ethical and professional code.

RFE/RL also has its own code of journalism standards by which its journalists must operate. Among the guidelines outlined in the RFE/RL code are:

-- Newscasts shall be accurate, objective, and comprehensive. Opinions and commentary from whatever source shall be clearly distinguished from news or news analysis and the source of the opinion identified.

-- No program shall be aired that is based on rumor or unsubstantiated information.

-- RFE/RL personnel shall scrupulously avoid any conflict of interest, or the appearance thereof in their relations with individuals, groups, and partisan or commercial interests inside or outside the broadcast area, and in no way abuse their status as public figures to promote personal interest or gain.

But Mower says although there are no federal controls on the media in the U.S., the press does not have the right to print untruths. She says a series of libel laws give individuals legal recourse against the press.

Mower also says the U.S. media keeps itself in check by being "highly self-critical." American journalists are "very willing" to criticize each other, and even consider it a responsibility to ensure that certain standards and ethics are upheld by their colleagues.

Mower says there are numerous magazines which are highly regarded in press circles. such as the Columbia Journalism Review and the American Journalism Review, which regularly highlight press violations or troubling developments in the media. She adds that even CNN, the all-news cable network, has a program called Reliable Source where journalists and their methods are routinely criticized.

In fact, according to Mower, the U.S. press is so critical of itself that repeated or serious press violations by particular journalists will result in the offender being ostracized by his peers and likely forced from the field altogether.

Mower says American journalists take their responsibilities to the public very seriously. She adds that virtually all of the professional journalists' codes in the U.S. recognize the responsibility of the media to monitor the government and other segments of power in society.

This responsibility is often emphasized and outlined by one of the United States' largest organization of journalists --the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).

According to the ASNE: "The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum of debate, but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government. Freedom of the press belongs to the people. It must be defended against encroachment or assault from any quarter, public or private. Journalists must be constantly alert to see that the public's business is conducted in public. They must be vigilant against all who would exploit the press for selfish purposes."

Mower believes the U.S. media has also been under increasing pressure to better balance the demands of the market and efforts to increase circulation with its responsibility to inform and educate the public. She says: "Obviously, there are huge market pressures and there has been a lot of debate in the community as to the [sensationalism] of news and [the down-playing of hard] news....There are obviously people who want to read about sex, drugs and scandal. But I think most American editors try very hard to make sure their readers are getting a mix of the tabloid-like stories and the serious stories."

Mower says a good way of ensuring an even balance in news coverage is the use of an ombudsman. According to Mower, an ombudsman is a person contracted to a newspaper or television station that monitors the organization's news coverage and also serves as the public's advocate --a person to whom people can complain if they feel news coverage has been slanted or unfair. Ombudsmen are usually paid by the organization for which they work, but they are not considered employees and have a short-term -- usually a two-to-five year -- contract.

Mower says there are currently very few ombudsmen in America, only 37, in spite of the fact that there over 1,600 daily newspapers.

Mower says one of the most respected American ombudsmen is Geneva Overholser who works at the "Washington Post."

In an interview with RFE/RL, Overholser said her job as ombudsman is primarily to make the newspaper accountable for its news coverage. She says she fields dozens of complaints a day from the public and writes about many of them in a weekly column published in the paper's Sunday edition.

Overholser has been a journalist for 25 years in various positions including an editorial writer at the New York Times and editor of the Des Moines (Iowa) Register newspaper. She says her past experience has proved invaluable during her tenure at the Washington Post.

Overholser, whose three-year contract with the newspaper expires at the end of this month, says one of the most difficult aspects of her job requires her to serve as an internal critic at the newspaper. She adds she often sends memos to editors and managers, pointing out problems and encouraging more balanced reporting.

Overall, Overholser says she has absolute freedom in her job and none of her columns are edited for content. But she says it has been her experience that American journalists are "extremely defensive" about their work. Says Overholser: "I think that is one reason why an ombudsman is a good idea because it really does involve critiquing specific stories and bringing the criticism home."

Overholser says she believes there are so few ombudsmen in the U.S. today mostly because it is an economic issue. She explains that editors who discover they have money for another position would rather have an additional reporter than a critic. She adds that some editors are also reluctant to relinquish responsibility for directly handling complaints from the public, preferring to do it themselves rather than having a middle man.

Says Overholser: "That sounds great, but the fact is that editors don't have time, really, to give a thoughtful ear to all the things that readers want to say. And secondly, and perhaps even more important, when you are responsible for something, you can't help but want to justify and defend it.... But an ombudsman is less [defensive], because the ombudsman didn't make the decision."

Overholser says that her work is sometimes frustrating, but she sincerely believes her position as an ombudsman has produced positive results within the Washington Post and the journalistic profession as a whole. She adds that it also gives ordinary people a powerful voice inside the newsroom.

"People don't want to sue newspapers. They simply want to be able to raise their concerns and have them be heard," says Overholser.