WNC Responds to Society of Professional Journalists’ national Ethics Committee

WNC Responds to Society of Professional Journalists’ national Ethics Committee

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) national Ethics Committee issued a statement on May 8 criticizing the Washington News Council’s “virtual hearing” by a Citizens Online News Council. The committee’s statement was a group effort overseen by Andy Schotz, chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, who interviewed me over the phone.
We also exchanged emails. Schotz invited me to respond. The SPJ statement is below, with my responses (in blue) after each paragraph. Schotz promised to post my response on the SPJ Ethics Committee’s blog site. The WNC invites the SPJ Ethics Committee to engage in a public dialogue about these important issues of media ethics and accountability. I’ll post their response here.

Ethics Committee: News council should abandon ‘virtual hearing’

Public polling shouldn’t be used to render ethics judgments about journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee said in response to a news council’s handling of a recent complaint in Washington state.

Part of the Washington News Council’s mission for the past 11 years has been to “provide a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics and performance.” This latest “public polling” — admittedly an experiment — was simply an effort to expand that discussion by taking it online. After all, if members of the public shouldn’t be asked “to render ethics judgments about journalism,” who should? Only journalists? If no other profession can credibly police itself, as journalists often contend, why should journalists be able to? Isn’t there a role for concerned citizens who care deeply about accurate and ethical news media?

The Washington News Council conducted a “virtual hearing” on a state official’s complaint about a TV station’s reporting on voting irregularities. Washington’s secretary of state said voting-related stories by KIRO, a CBS affiliate in Seattle, were flawed and inaccurate. KIRO has chosen not to give its side to the council.

KIRO chose not to “give its side” to ANYONE in public, not just to the council. Is that a defensible and ethical stance for a television station with an FCC license that carries a responsibility to operate in the public interest? Is that in keeping with the “Be Accountable” section of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which states: “Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other. Journalists should: Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct….”? Does the SPJ Ethics Committee believe KIRO did that?

John Hamer, the news council’s executive director, said KIRO wouldn’t participate in a hearing or publicly address the complaint about its stories. Frustrated, the secretary of state withdrew his complaint.

Since KIRO refused to “publicly address” the complaint about its stories on its own station or at a News Council hearing, how could the public evaluate Secretary Sam Reed’s complaint? Also, Reed did not “withdraw” his complaint, but only “suspended” it, hoping that KIRO would eventually respond as a result of the News Council’s process. He was frustrated by KIRO’s intransigence, not by the News Council’s efforts to help, which he publicly praised.

Todd Mokhtari, KIRO’s news director, said in an interview that the station stands by its voting-related stories. He declined to talk about the news council’s hearing process.

If KIRO “stands by its voting-related stories,” then why did the station remove them from its website? Did the SPJ Ethics Committee ask Todd Mokhtari that question? What was his answer? If Mokhtari “declined to talk about the News Council’s hearing process,” did the SPJ Ethics Committee ask him to talk about the merits of the complaint? If not, why not? Also, this was the second complaint against KIRO that has come before the News Council. A previous complaint, concerning stories by the same reporter, was upheld at a full WNC hearing in June 2003. KIRO declined to participate in that hearing, although it posted a response on its website.

The council hears complaints about news coverage and, ideally, mediates them or educates the public about the journalistic process.

Is the SPJ Ethics Committee aware of the Washington News Council’s 11-year history, in which we have successfully mediated several complaints? Is it aware of our long record of educational efforts — including public panels and forums, speeches to civic groups, plus mock hearings in high-school and college journalism classes — all of which are fully documented on the News Council’s website? We have already used the Reed vs. KIRO case with several groups of students, who all voted to uphold Reed’s complaint.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee sees merit in a news council as a mediator or an educator. A hearing can be worthwhile if all parties voluntarily participate and work toward a common understanding.

If the SPJ Ethics Committee ”sees merit in a news council as a mediator or educator,” we appreciate that. However, if the committee believes that a News Council hearing can be worthwhile only “if all parties voluntarily participate,” what does the committee suggest in cases where one party refuses to participate? Drop the whole matter and thus have no public discussion of the ethics at issue? In other words, should a recalcitrant media organization be able to veto the entire process because they refuse to “stand by” their stories in public and answer questions about them? If the SPJ Ethics Committee believes that both parties should “work toward a common understanding,” how does it interpret KIRO’s refusal to correct any inaccuracies on its website? What about its early offer to remove the stories IF Sam Reed would not inform the News Council or the public (an offer that Reed declined)? Or KIRO’s ultimate decision to quietly remove the stories without notifying either Reed or the WNC? Does the committee believe those actions qualify as working toward “a common understanding”?

The committee strongly objects to having a public online vote, or virtual hearing, on journalism ethics.

If the SPJ Ethics Committee strongly objects to having a public online vote, or “virtual hearing,” in this case, what alternatives would the committee suggest? Should the News Council have issued a public statement condemning KIRO’s behavior? Would the committee have praised that action? What is SPJ’s concern about public participation? Don’t news media organizations today all invite and welcome more citizen feedback? How does our online vote differ from, say, letters to the editor, where a self-selected group of citizens respond to articles or editorials and their letters are published? If a newspaper publishes all the letters it receives online, how does that differ from a “virtual hearing” where voters are allowed to add comments? What about online news sites or blogs that allow open and unedited comments? The News Council at least provides a kind of public judgment on the merits of complaints, although it has no legal power and carries no penalty. Isn’t that more likely to persuade a media organization to try harder the next time to live up to the SPJ Ethics Code?

On Monday [May 4], the council posted online voting results and comments, which were lopsided against KIRO. However, Hamer says the council doesn’t have the time or staff to verify the identities of the voters. See the poll results here.

Does the SPJ Ethics Committee question the identities of our online voters? We asked for a real full name and email address, and got them 99% of the time. Does the committee think this is less reliable than most newspapers’ systems of verifying letter writers or online commenters, which also are not 100% reliable? Does the committee have suggestions as to how we could do better, given our limited staff and resources?

“The news council is wrong to emulate the ‘American Idol’ model of voting for a ‘winner,’” said Andy Schotz, chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee. “Gimmickry is a major step backward if the council wants to appear professional and credible.”

If the SPJ Ethics Committee believes that this latest experiment was “gimmickry,” what suggestions does it have for involving more members of the public in serious and substantive discussions of media ethics — as the News Council has actively done for the past 11 years? And how is our online vote — which asked specific questions and required considerable time, thought and deliberation — any less professional or credible than an online news site that is open to public comments, often of questionable taste, manners and logic?

Since 1998, when the Washington News Council started, it has conducted four hearings, Hamer said. Each time, the news organization that was challenged wouldn’t participate.

To state that the news organizations that were challenged “wouldn’t participate” in the WNC’s past four hearings is misleading. In each of those cases, the media organizations responded in detail in writing or on their websites. Their responses were read into the record at the hearings. Has the committee read the history of those cases, to see how the News Council tried to consider both sides of the complaints even without the media organizations’ presence at the hearings?

Hamer said the virtual hearing is an experiment in public engagement and keeping the media accountable.

The experiment should be abandoned, the Ethics Committee believes. Discussions of journalism ethics are often complex and nuanced. Frequently, there’s no single “right” decision.

This virtual hearing was indeed an experiment in public engagement and keeping the media accountable. Is the SPJ Ethics Committee opposed to such experiments? If so, why? We agree that discussions of journalism ethics are often “complex and nuanced,” and there is no “right” decision. Is the committee aware of how carefully the WNC has considered the complexities and nuances of every case that has come before us? Is the committee aware that at past hearings, News Council members split their votes on some issues, so not all decisions were unanimous?

News councils can bring news organizations and the public together to understand each others’ positions. But this online poll is unscientific, unreliable, misleading and based on incomplete information.

Is the SPJ’s Ethics Committee aware that ”to bring news organizations and the public together to better understand each others’ positions” has been the mission of the WNC since 1998? But when a media organization is unwilling to explain its position or correct documented inaccuracies, what is the alternative? We agree that this online poll is unscientific; we made no claim that it was a scientific survey based on a random sample. We simply invited public comment, asking citizens to read the complaint and accompanying 10-page letter, view the KIRO stories, and then vote on the questions that the full News Council would have considered had this gone to a full WNC hearing. How exactly does that make it “unreliable” and “misleading” — any more so than a random selection of letters to the editor, or comments on a blog? As for being “based on incomplete information,” wouldn’t that have been remedied had KIRO been more forthcoming?

The Ethics Committee encourages KIRO and all news organizations to be accountable. They should listen to and answer challenges to their coverage. If they make mistakes, they should correct them.

If the SPJ Ethics Committee encourages KIRO and all news organizations to “be accountable,” what does the committee suggest doing when they are NOT accountable? If the committee believes that media organizations “should listen to and answer challenges to their coverage, and, if they make mistakes, they should correct them,” what action does the committee recommend when media organizations refuse to do those things?

News organizations should embrace efforts to fairly resolve questions of fairness and accuracy. The news council’s virtual hearing undercuts that process.

If the committee believes that news organizations “should embrace efforts to fairly resolve questions of fairness and accuracy” — which is precisely what the News Council’s complaint and hearing process does — what does the committee suggest when news organizations reject such efforts? How does the News Council’s “virtual hearing” — i.e., inviting the public to weigh in on an important dispute that goes to the heart of media ethics — “undercut” that process? And finally, why would the SPJ Ethics Committee not welcome an independent citizens’ organization whose mission is to actively support the vital “Be Accountable” section of the SPJ’s own Ethics Code?

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


About John Hamer
JOHN HAMER is President of the Washington News Council, an independent forum for media fairness that he co-founded in 1998. Hamer was formerly Associate Editorial-Page Editor at The Seattle Times and previously Associate Editor with Congressional Quarterly/Editorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C. Read more about John or read John's blog posts.