The Washington News Council largely upheld a complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer filed by the King County Sheriff’s Office at a WNC public hearing in Seattle on Oct. 21.
NOTE: The WNC hearing was filmed by TVW and may be viewed in the video archives on TVW’s website. See www.tvw.org. (DVDs will be available from the WNC, please call our office for details.)
The written complaint concerned a series of P-I articles called “Conduct Unbecoming” that ran in the newspaper in 2005 and 2006. (For link, see www.seattlepi.com.) The complaint contended that key aspects of some stories were “inaccurate, biased or misleading,” with the overall effect of “unfairly disparaging” the Sheriff’s Office.
The P-I responded to the complaint in a 17-page document posted on its website, with copies hand-delivered to the Washington News Council, but P-I management declined to attend the hearing. Media participation is voluntary. However, most of the P-I’s response was read into the record at the hearing by WNC Chair Karen Seinfeld.
The News Council voted on 11 separate questions pertaining to various aspects of the stories. Of the Council’s 20 current members, six recused themselves from voting at the hearing due to the possible appearance of potential conflicts of interest. Three others (including one who would have recused) did not attend the hearing. Three WNC members emeritus sat in and voted in place of absent members.
WNC President Stephen Silha issued this statement after the hearing:
“Our News Council members found that the P-I was unfair to Sheriff Rahr in some of the stories published over the past year and a half. In particular, they were imprecise, incomplete and at times inaccurate in the reporting on the sheriff’s role in pensions, discipline, and other issues. While the P-I series has provided a real public service in its inquiry into the sheriff’s office and the activities of several deputies, in the view of the News Council, the paper overreached in reporting on Rahr’s role and failed to make adequate corrections and clarifications in a timely way. This hearing proves once again that the News Council is the best and fairest place where citizens and journalists can discuss constructively how news stories affect the community.”
In a subsequent statement, Sheriff Sue Rahr said:
“I want to thank the Washington News Council members for their time and careful deliberation of this very complex and lengthy case. This body is vital to ensuring the press is providing accurate and balanced information to the public, not only about their government, but other issues that affect their lives. The public has a right to fair, accurate and balanced information. You’re doing a great service to the community by taking action that will improve the practice of journalism. I hope other people can take advantage of this process. I also want to thank every member of the Sheriff’s Office who have held their heads high and continued to serve the public with honor and integrity while under the cloud of this series of stories.”
In a P-I story that ran Oct. 23, Associate Publisher Kenneth F. Bunting said:
“Our reporting of the sheriff’s complaint and our response is available for our readers, and I’m confident that most readers will see this complaint for what it is: an attempt to detract from the very real issues we raised in the public interest.” P-I Managing Editor David McCumber added: “This pronouncement, while regrettable, does nothing to diminish the excellent journalism of ‘Conduct Unbecoming.’ ”
The questions and final votes were:
1) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate or misleading in describing the role of the Sheriff’s Office in deciding whether deputies facing discipline could resign or retire to avoid discipline or firing? YES: 12; NO: 1; ABSTAIN: 1.
2) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate and misleading in describing the impacts on pensions of former deputies — particularly Dan Ring’s pension — relating to decisions made and actions taken, or not taken, by the Sheriff’s Office? YES: 13; NO: 1.
3) Did P-I coverage unfairly characterize the Metro Transit Police Unit as a “dumping ground” for troubled deputies because five of 47 officers assigned to the unit had histories of disciplinary issues? YES: 10 votes; NO: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.
4) Was reporting of Deputy Abreu’s transfer inaccurate? YES: 10; NO: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.
5) Was reporting of the unit biased on behalf of critics by not including more comments from a supportive security liaison? NO: 10; YES: 1; ABSTAIN: 3
6) Was P-I coverage inaccurate, misleading, and inflammatory in stating that the Sheriff’s Office retaliated against citizens and transit staff members who complain about deputies’ performance? YES: 7; NO: 1; ABSTAIN: 6.
7) Was P-I coverage of the public meeting in Kenmore biased and unfair? NO: 12; YES: 0; ABSTAIN: 2.
8) Was P-I coverage of a blue ribbon panel biased and misleading in overstating criticism of the Sheriff’s Office?NO: 10; YES: 2; ABSTAIN: 2.
9) Considering all of the stories submitted, many in the series “Conduct Unbecoming,” did P-I coverage and commentary unfairly disparage the Sheriff’s Office? YES: 12; NO: 2.
10) Did the P-I allow adequate access for comment and rebuttal by the KCSO? NO: 10; YES: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.
11) Were acknowledged mistakes in coverage corrected adequately and in a timely manner? NO: 12; YES: 0; ABSTAIN: 2.
NOTE: The following question was voluntarily withdrawn from the complaint by Sheriff Rahr after the Council’s public deliberation period.
12) As it published the “Conduct Unbecoming” series and related articles, did the P-I fail to adhere to acceptable standards of journalistic ethics by not disclosing to readers the potential conflict of interest — real or perceived — involving Managing Editor David McCumber’s discussions with then-Sheriff Dave Reichert about writing a book on the Green River murders? NOT VOTED ON.
The hearing, which was open to the public and the press, was attended by interested citizens and journalism students. A written summary will be posted soon on the WNC’s website, along with a complete list of individual members’ votes.
The Washington News Council is an independent, nonprofit 501c3 citizens’ organization whose mission is to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by providing a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics and fairness.
The WNC is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for the news media in Washington state. It has no official power or legal authority. WNC hearings are not judicial proceedings, but open discussions. Complainants agree not to sue media outlets; the WNC process is an alternative to litigation. Votes on complaints carry no sanctions other than publicity.
The Council’s Board members are all volunteers. Half of them are Media members who spent most of their careers in journalism. Half are Public members from a wide range of professions and backgrounds. Chair Karen Seinfeld, a former Washington State Court of Appeals judge, presided over the hearing but does not vote.
The Washington News Council was formed in 1998. It is one of five news councils in the United States. The others are in Minnesota (formed in 1970), Hawaii (1972), New England (2006) and Southern California (2006).
Stephen Silha, email@example.com, WNC President, 206.567.4363
John Hamer, firstname.lastname@example.org, Executive Director, 206.262.9793