Complaint against KUOW largely upheld at WNC hearing

Watch the hearing video in its entirety
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The Washington News Council (WNC) held a three-hour public hearing Saturday, March 31, at the University of Washington’s Communications Building on a complaint by the Vitae Caring Foundation against KUOW 94.9 FM Public Radio in Seattle.

Pia de Solenni represented the Vitae Foundation and Guy Nelson, News Director of KUOW spoke for the radio station. The hearing was filmed by UWTV and the WNC. A link to the full video will be posted soon on this website.

WNC Hearings Board members voted on six questions relating to the complaint. The full questions, and the Council’s votes, follow.

  1. Did KUOW have a journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions, and/or CareNet for comment before airing the April 13, 2011, news story?
    YES – 11 votes; NO – 0 votes
  2. Did KUOW have a responsibility to give equal airtime to both sides, Vitae Foundation as well as Planned Parenthood, in a news story about Vitae’s advertising campaign?
    YES – 5 votes; NO – 3 votes; ABSTAIN – 3 votes
  3. Did KUOW’s story accurately characterize the abortion information that was accessible on the YourOptions.com website?
    YES – 1 vote; NO – 8 votes; ABSTAIN – 2 votes
  4. Did the original KUOW news story contain substantive errors worthy of public, on-air corrections and/or clarifications?
    YES – 10 votes; NO – 0 votes; ABSTAIN – 1 vote
  5. Did the follow-up interview by Guy Nelson with Debbie Stokes, posted on KUOW’s website on Sept. 30, 2011, sufficiently acknowledge and/or clarify errors in the original story?
    YES – 4 votes; NO – 6 votes; ABSTAIN – 1 vote
  6. Did KUOW have any responsibility to provide Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the original news story aired?
    YES – 1 vote; NO – 10 votes
Bill Gates Sr and Pia de Solenni

Bill Gates Sr. has a chat with Vitae Caring Foundation's Pia de Solenni after the hearing

Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander presided, sitting in for WNC Hearings Board Chair Judge Karen Seinfeld. The WNC Hearings Board included current WNC Board Members Scott Forslund, John Hamer, Martin Neeb and Shannon Myers, plus Emeritus Members Steve Boyer, Bill Gates Sr., Walt Howe, John Knowlton, Charles Rehberg, David Schaefer and Chris Villiers.

“It was an extremely thoughtful and frank discussion about media accuracy, fairness and ethics,” said John Hamer, President and Executive Director of the WNC. “We were very pleased that KUOW fully participated in our process, and appreciative that the Vitae Foundation came to the News Council for recourse. This is what the WNC is all about.”

Pia de Solenni of Vitae issued the following statement after the hearing: “The Washington News Council provided a wonderful opportunity for Vitae to make its case and to demonstrate that KUOW had in fact run a news piece about Vitae that violated KUOW’s own code of ethics. Vitae contacted KUOW within 24 hours of the original story last April; but attempts to rectify the errors in the story were delayed by KUOW, both then and after the informal mediation meeting in July. While an outlet such as KUOW, an NPR affiliate, should have a level of professionalism that would have precluded the original piece from even airing, much less allowing the inaccuracies to stand uncorrected, the WNC offered a public forum in which a consensus was arrived at that KUOW had acted in a less than responsible manner. At the end of the day, this is not about which side of the abortion debate one happens to stand on, but about the accountability of news outlets that is absolutely essential in a free and democratic society.”

Guy Nelson of KUOW issued this statement: “KUOW was glad to participate in the WNC Hearing process on March 31, 2012. We were given the opportunity to clearly state our position and answer any questions from the WNC Board members. At the end of the hearing, I stated that KUOW has indeed met the stipulations of the WNC proposed resolution put forth in August 2011, and I asked the board members for comment. None of the board members spoke in disagreement. [Editor's Note: Some disagreed.] KUOW will consider further coverage of the issue of pregnancy care centers as it becomes important to our listeners.”

The 11-member Hearings Board agreed with Vitae on some of the six questions under consideration, and sided with KUOW on others. Board members had the option to abstain from voting for any reason.

The Board voted 11-0 that KUOW did have a “journalistic responsibility” to contact Vitae and/or two related organizations before airing its story on April 13, 2011. Nelson said the station’s reporter tried to contact CareNet, a related organization, but calls were not returned.

The Board also agreed with Vitae, 10-0, with 1 abstention, that the story contained “substantive errors” worthy of on-air corrections or clarifications. The station made some corrections and clarifications, but only on its website and not on the air.

The Board voted 8-1, with 2 abstentions, that KUOW’s story did not “accurately characterize” abortion information that was accessible on a Vitae-sponsored website.

However, the Board voted 10-1 that KUOW did not have “any responsibility to provide Vitae additional on-air coverage” after the original story aired. Panel members were divided 5-3, with 3 abstentions, on whether KUOW had a responsibility to give “equal airtime” to both sides. They voted 6-4, with 1 abstention, that a follow-up interview with Vitae posted on KUOW’s website did not “sufficiently acknowledge and/or clarify errors in the original story.”

The questions were worded by members of the WNC’s Executive and Complaints Committees over the past several weeks, in an effort to focus on the key issues in the complaint.

The hearing began with presentations by De Solenni and Nelson, followed by rebuttal statements from each. The WNC Board members then asked questions of each side. After a break, the hearing reconvened for open discussion among Board members, with follow-up question for clarifications by the two parties as needed. Vitae and KUOW each made brief closing statements.

The Hearings Board members voted on written ballots and then confirmed their votes on each question by a show of hands.

Members of the audience, including students, were also given written ballots and asked to vote on the six questions. Those results were tabulated after the hearing. They were:

  1. Did KUOW have a journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions, and/or CareNet for comment before airing the April 13, 2011, news story?
    • Students: YES – 6 votes; NO – 0 votes
    • Other Attendees: YES – 4 votes; NO – 0 votes
  2. Did KUOW have a responsibility to give equal airtime to both sides, Vitae Foundation as well as Planned Parenthood, in a news story about Vitae’s advertising campaign?
    • Students: YES – 4 votes; NO – 2 votes
    • Other Attendees: YES – 2 votes; NO – 2 votes
  3. Did KUOW’s story accurately characterize the abortion information that was accessible on the YourOptions.com website?
    • Students: YES – 1 votes; NO – 4 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 0 votes; NO – 3 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
  4. Did the original KUOW news story contain substantive errors worthy of public, on-air corrections and/or clarifications?
    • Students: YES – 3 votes; NO – 1 votes; ABSTAIN 2 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 2 votes; NO – 0 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
  5. Did the follow-up interview by Guy Nelson with Debbie Stokes, posted on KUOW’s website on Sept. 30, 2011, sufficiently acknowledge and/or clarify errors in the original story?
    • Students: YES – 4 votes; NO – 0 votes; ABSTAIN 2 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 1 votes; NO – 3 votes
  6. Did KUOW have any responsibility to provide Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the original news story aired?
    • Students: YES – 1 votes; NO – 4 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 2 votes; NO – 2 votes

The Washington News Council would like to thank Pia de Solenni and Guy Nelson for participating in our complaint and hearing process. Media participation in WNC proceedings is entirely voluntary.

We’d also like to thank all those who attended. We invite follow-up comments and suggestions on our complaint and hearing process, which we will be thoroughly reviewing in the months ahead, as we have done regularly in years past.

The Washington News Council’s decisions carry no legal weight, but we believe our process of discussing media accuracy, balance and ethics in an open forum is valuable for the public, the press and democracy. If you agree, disagree, or just want to talk, we’d love to hear from you.

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