WNC To Hold Hearing on Vitae Foundation vs. KUOW Complaint

***UPDATE*** we now have the hearing video and full set of documents involved with the complaint as a downloadable PDF. We also have national coverage by The Washington Times and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Ombudsman. Plus local coverage in Sound Politics and the Northwest Daily Marker.

The Washington News Council’s Board of Directors has set a date for a hearing on a formal written complaint from the Vitae Foundation against KUOW 94.9 FM concerning a story that aired April 13, 2011.

The hearing will be Saturday, March 31, 2012, from 9 am-noon, at the University of Washington’s Communication Department, Room 120. It is open to the public.

You can download a PDF collection here to read the basic complaint and initial correspondence between Vitae and KUOW.

WNC Hearings Board Chair Karen Seinfeld presiding over the Sue Rahr v. Seattle Post-Intelligencer case

Karen Seinfeld, Chair of the WNC Hearings Board and former Chief Judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals, will preside at the hearing. (UPDATE 3/16/12: Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander will be presiding in Judge Seinfeld’s place at the hearing.)

The WNC Hearings Board will be comprised of current and former WNC Board Members, including Martin Neeb, Scott Forslund, Shannon Myers, Bill Gates Sr., Steve Boyer, John Knowlton, Erik Lacitis, Charles Rehberg, David Schaefer, Paula Selis, Chris Villiers and Walt Howe.

The WNC recently received two grants from the Gates Foundation and Microsoft for 2012 operating expenses.

To see how a WNC hearing works, here is a link to a video and background information of a 2006 hearing in the Sheriff Sue Rahr vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer complaint, held at Town Hall Seattle.

(The P-I chose not to participate in the hearing, which is their right as media participation is voluntary. They posted a 17-page written response on their website, much of which was read into the record by Judge Seinfeld at the hearing. Had they attended, they would have had full opportunity to “stand by their stories” in public, respond to questions from the Council, and make their case in an open forum.)

The WNC received the Vitae Foundation’s formal written complaint on June 9, 2011, and the Council’s Board of Directors accepted it for our process after careful review. The WNC’s Board unanimously agreed that the complaint raised “serious questions of journalistic performance or ethics,” which is our main criterion for acceptance. The Board takes no position on the merits of a complaint at that stage, however.

We notified both sides that the complaint had been accepted and began a 30-day resolution period, encouraging both Vitae and KUOW to seek a compromise resolution. WNC convened a meeting on July 14, 2011, at the WNC office with Guy Nelson, News Director of KUOW and Pia de Solenni, representing the Vitae Foundation. The resolution period was extended for another 30 days, and extended again through the end of the calendar year. Both sides were urged to continue seeking a compromise.

Following WNC’s three-part recommendation of a proposed compromise resolution, Guy Nelson did conduct a brief telephone interview with Debbie Stokes (CORRECTION: An earlier version identified her as “Debbie Nelson.” We regret the error.) of the Vitae Foundation on Sept. 30, 2011, and posted the transcript on the station’s website. However, the station did not acknowledge that the original story was incomplete and misleading, as they had conceded privately. Nor did they do an on-air story, which was part of the proposed compromise. Nelson said they would “seriously consider” doing a follow-up on-air story, which was part of our proposed compromise, but set no timetable.

The WNC tried through 2011 to mediate Vitae’s complaint, hoping that a satisfactory compromise resolution could be reached. WNC Board Members believed that a resolution was possible. However, in January 2012 it became clear that resolution was unlikely. More than six months had passed — far exceeding the WNC’s normal 30-day resolution period — and there had been little progress.

Under the WNC’s Complaint and Hearing Procedures guidelines, if the complainant is not “satisfied with the news outlet’s proposed resolution to the complaint,” a hearing date to air the issues is scheduled. Vitae was not satisfied with KUOW’s response and therefore requested a hearing. The WNC’s Board, after careful deliberation, agreed to set a hearing date.

A hearing is not a trial, but an open discussion of journalistic standards, which is healthy and helpful for both sides — and for the general public. WNC has asked both parties to submit final written statements by March 10 that include “any new information obtained or agreements reached during the process of trying to resolve the complaint.”

WNC’s Complaints Committee will phrase questions for the Council to consider at the hearing, identifying “which actions by the news outlet allegedly violated standards of accuracy, fairness and/or journalistic ethics.” Final wording of the questions will be shared with both parties and made public at least 10 days prior to the hearing.

One resource the WNC may use at the hearing is National Public Radio’s newly revised Ethics Handbook, which was just released last week.

WNC’s guidelines also state: “Parties may continue to try to resolve the complaint prior to a hearing, but if they do not reach a resolution before the day of the hearing, the hearing will proceed.” If the complaint is resolved to both KUOW and Vitae’s satisfaction by March 30, the hearing will be cancelled.

For further information about the complaint or questions about WNC’s process, contact:

John Hamer (206.262.9793)
President and Executive Director
Washington News Council
1201 1st Ave. South, #331
Seattle, WA 98134

8:30 a.m. – Doors open to Room 120, U.W. Communications Building, to public and news media. (Open at 8 a.m. to WNC Hearings Board)

9:00 a.m. – WNC President John Hamer welcomes attendees,
makes brief remarks about WNC complaint & hearing process.

9:05 a.m. – Hearings Board Chair Gerry Alexander calls hearing to order, asks all Board members to introduce themselves

9:10 a.m. – Opening Statement (15 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

9:25 a.m. – Opening Statement (15 minutes) by KUOW

9:40 a.m. – Rebuttal Statement (5 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

9:45 a.m. – Rebuttal Statement (5 minutes) by KUOW

9:50-10:30 a.m. – Questions (40 minutes) by WNC Hearings Board

10:30-10:45 a.m. – Break

10:45-11:30 a.m. – Discussion (45 minutes) by WNC Hearings Board members (questions of Vitae and KUOW only to clarify issues)

11:30 a.m. – Chair Alexander asks if either party wants a brief recess to reconsider positions or eliminate questions. If so, action is taken.

11:35 a.m. – Closing Statement (2 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

11:37 a.m. – Closing Statement (2 minutes) by KUOW

11:40 a.m. – WNC Hearings Board votes on written ballots, which are counted by WNC staff. Vote results announced by Chair Alexander.
Hearings Board members confirm their votes by show of hands.

12:00 p.m. – Hearing is adjourned by Chair Alexander.

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