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Feb 6, 2012

New Kid on the Block: Journalist Complaints? Get it off your chest

Journalist Complaints, launched just weeks ago, is an example of citizens taking the monitoring of the media into their own hands, in the absence of an effective regulator.

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The new website Journalist Complaints has a folksy front page — a picture of a kangaroo wearing boxing gloves, in what looks like a tense embrace with a member of the press, who also seems to be a swaggy going by the corks on the hat.

Journalist Complaints, launched just weeks ago, is an example of citizens taking the monitoring of the media into their own hands, in the absence of an effective regulator. It might be called gatewatching — that is, citizens using the capabilities of the internet to participate in the news publishing process, including by scrutinising and critiquing how the “gatekeepers” of the mainstream media do their job.

Journalist Complaints is this week’s entry to the New Kid on the Block series — a regular Monday morning look at indy media and new media start-ups.

So what about that boxing kangaroo? The idea, says founder Alan Corbett, is that the roo, representing the public, should embrace the media but keep its wits about it and its defences up.

Corbett has spent about $3500 of his own money on the site so far. In a previous life, he was the founder of the Better Future for Our Children Party. He served in the NSW parliament between 1995 and 2003, and now lives near Bundaberg in Queensland. See his maiden speech here.

His motivation for starting the site, he says, was that as an MP he had some bruising experiences with journalists that damaged him and his family. Yet he is not anti-journo. Rather, he says, the site exists to educate and inform, and because there is no “transparent, open and accessible public complaints process” by which the public can call journalists to account.

Take note the Australian Press Council and the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, both of which deal with complaints about journalism and journalists. Corbett has experience with both, and the fact he has created his site is sufficient comment on how he regards his experience.

He lodged a complaint about The Courier-Mail with the MEAA in September last year. The complaint was about the way in which the newspaper had reported on the MEAA’s own processes for dealing with complaints.

The journalist concerned was not a member of the union, so Corbett was referred to the Press Council. He lodged his complaint with them in October last year. The Courier-Mail responded on December 12. Corbett asked the APC to proceed to adjudication, but was told The Courier-Mail would have to be consulted again. Almost five months after the complaint was first made, he is still waiting for a resolution.

The Journalist Complaints site is, he says, for Australians who have had unpleasant experiences with journalists and who want to tell the public about their experiences and the effects on themselves and their families. It is also about recognising and rewarding “journalists who have demonstrated a capacity to establish good-will, genuinely engage, connect or bond with their audience and build a trusting relationship”.

Thus the site contains pages for journalists to explain themselves, and for the public to air their brickbats and bouquets. There is a complaints page, and a section for public trust awards, as well as a cartoons section. Corbett, an amateur cartoonist himself, describes cartoons as his favourite means of expression.

So far the site is light on for content. Says Corbett: “I am not in any hurry to build up a following. It will take some time and that’s fine with me — I’m not selling anything. I would rather concentrate on settling into the role of moderator and ensuring the site gains a good reputation as a resource and a bridge between journalists and the public.

There is no money to pay for contributions — this is entirely a volunteer effort.

The site has succeeded in attracting a short article from media ethicist Dr Denis Muller who describes it as a “significant development. It adds a new dimension to an already fast-developing phenomenon — that of the internet as a mechanism of media accountability.”

The first complaint has been posted, telling a story of bias and conflict of interest. An environmental organisation believes a journalist refused to give them coverage because “the journalist and the journalist’s partner own a business which is actively involved in the environmental practice that we wanted to raise some concerns over”.

“If this issue is not resolved and we are not given a fair opportunity to voice our concerns, we won’t have any choice but to make a complaint to the journalist’s employer. An action we would rather avoid,” they say.

The site also has an “ask a journo” section, in which the public can query how the business works. The first question asks for an explanation of the difference between a reporter and a journalist. A comprehensive answer has been provided by the editor of the Bundaberg News-Mail newspaper, Christina Ongley, who writes:

“You may get a different answer to this depending on who you ask, but my personal view is that the term ‘journalist’ is the broad catch-all word to describe many different kinds of roles that make up an editorial department. So for instance, while my role is editor, I still consider myself a journalist and that’s usually how I introduce myself if people ask what I do. Other roles included in that term are reporters (the news gatherers and writers); subeditors (who do a variety of things from checking copy and writing headlines to designing and proofing pages); news editors and chiefs of staff (who help to manage the newsroom and make decisions on where stories are placed and how they are angled); and, depending on the size of the newsroom, a variety of other editor and specialist roles. But we are all journalists.”

Corbett says he has had nothing but support from the media around Bundaberg. “I have no idea where it will end up but I have enjoyed the journey so far and don’t regret a thing,” he says.

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